In her feature-length debut, writer-director A.V. Rockwell helms this love letter to mothers. Inez (Teyana Taylor) kidnaps her 6-year-old son, Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), from the foster care system to restart their life together, ultimately reclaiming their sense of home and family. Inez finds a partner in Lucky (William Catlett), and the story proceeds as Terry turns 13 (Aven Courtney) and then 17 (Josiah Cross), but their secret always lingers ominously over them, threatening to destroy the home they’ve built together. The film won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. (117 min.)
Glen: This is an impressive feature-length debut. Rockwell, a woman of color, has directed short films and music videos since 2012, so she knows her way around a camera. The film starts in 1994 in New York City when the Twin Towers still dominated the skyline, but Rockwell’s focus is on the street and the people trying to get by, in particular Inez, who’s recently released from Rikers Island jail. She hustles by doing hair, but she’s clearly burned some bridges in her old haunt, so when she takes Terry, they head to where she grew up in Harlem. She’s far from a perfect mother, but she’s a dedicated one who’s trying to make a better life for her son and herself. Teyana Taylor is positively fierce as Inez, who at one point tells Terry, “I’d go to war for you. I’d fight this whole city.” She’s a flawed character, but you want to root for her and you want to see her succeed both for herself and for Terry.
Anna: The thing that keeps Inez pushing through is her fierce love for Terry, and somehow, even though it’s far from perfect, she manages to build a life for him. He’s smart and quiet and in desperate need of someone to care for him when he is a little boy. The foster system can easily swallow up kids like Terry, and Inez truly believes that he is better off with her. Life is a battle for the two, especially in the beginning. Taylor plays Inez with the desperate energy of a rat caught in a trap trying to claw its way out. When Terry is older, their fear becomes not that he will be recognized, but that without a birth certificate he won’t be able to take the next steps in life to become an adult. This film is achingly sad in a lot of places, but there is a beauty to that sadness. I especially found the connection between Terry and Lucky, the only man who has been a father figure to him, to be profound.
Glen: Catlett as Lucky was a really interesting character. At first, he resisted the idea of being a father figure to Terry, and the reason becomes obvious at the ambiguous ending of the film, which really surprised me, but soon Lucky realizes how desperately Terry needs a role model, and as flawed as Lucky is, he does his best to become one. The film is also about a changing New York City, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s stop and frisk policy that put a target on the backs of young black men and boys like Terry, and gentrification. In one particularly vexing segment, it becomes clear that Inez’s new landlord is less interested in repairing her apartment and more interested in forcing her out. Life is hard and unfair, but Inez wants more for Terry. She just might not be able to supply it.
Anna: The new landlord seems too good to be true, and he is. It seems like every time this family catches a hint of a break, something inevitably comes crashing down. Terry gets accepted into a specialized tech high school, but when he can’t provide a social security number those dreams are dashed. I thought this movie was fantastic, but it definitely wasn’t a light watch. This film broke my heart.
Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Glen compiles listings. Comment at [email protected].