When I first saw the trailer for A.V. Rockwell’s newest drama, I was more than skeptical. The movie’s centered around a young mother, Inez, kidnapping her six-year old son, Terry, from the foster care system in1990's New York City; as the years pass, the two lean on each other while struggling with gentrifying landlords, growing pains and a city that’s full of racism and repression. It’d have been easy for this movie to turn into trauma porn, focusing only on the negativity of these characters’ lives, flattening them so suffering is their only trait, but that absolutely did not happen. As Inez herself says, “there’s more to life than fucked up beginnings,” and we’re constantly reminded of that throughout the film. This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning movie is a life-affirming portrayal of family, motherhood, class and coming-of-age that’s bolstered by powerhouse acting and gorgeous visuals.
The movie can be seen as a letter to the city itself, though I'm unsure if it's a love letter. We’re constantly grounded in a firm sense of time and place by sweeping shots of Harlem, often coupled with radio reports of new laws such as the infamously racist Stop and Frisk. This helps viewers get their bearings as the film drops in and out of decades in this family’s life, and also speaks to Rockwell’s interest in exploring what it means to need stability in a city that’s constantly changing. We see the system’s effect on families as people are ripped from each other, forced to start from scratch, and can’t help but access the social commentary at the film’s core; but Rockwell isn’t interested in lecturing us from behind the camera. Instead, the politics of this film emerge from the intimate relationships of its characters, the nuance and gravity of their struggles, which makes the cast that much more important to the success of this movie.
Teyana Taylor is electric as Inez. I think one of the hardest things an actor can do is make their character flawed yet human, and she does that to a staggering degree. The commitment, the range, everything about her performance brings us closer to the emotional core of this movie. We realize that Inez may be very far from perfect, but even after a twist towards the end of the film it’s clear she’s a mother trying to do what’s best for her family. There are moments when Inez is worried Terry's true identity will be discovered and he'll be taken away again, and it's as if we're sitting beside her in these visceral scenes. All the actors who played Terry at different life stages also do a great job, somehow managing to make the character feel cohesive despite the difficulties I’m sure they faced; and Will Catlett has a phenomenal supporting role as Lucky, Terry’s stepdad. Without this cast, I wonder if this film would’ve simply lapsed into melodrama. Thank goodness we don’t have to find out; and their acting is highlighted by some fantastic visuals
Eric K. Yue’s cinematography is outstanding. Often using practical lights either from the harsh fluorescents of NYC apartments or the lush ambiance of neon lights along the streets, the visual language of the film really highlights the inner lives of the Inez and Terry, making it easy for viewers to sympathize with these nuanced characters. The film grain is heavy towards the beginning, creating a retro feel that I found endearing. I also love the camerawork here. Sometimes, the camera pans as a someone’s walking through the street, losing them in the crowd, as if speaking to the aloof nature of the city and all the danger that comes when you’re alone in the world. There are a few crane shots that feel very purposeful, bringing emphasis not only to the city as a story element, but to the system as a whole, making their struggle for survival, for a life of dignity, that much more immediate.
Heart-wrenching in some moments, heartwarming in others, this film hits so many emotional registers and covers such expansive themes that, by the time it’s finished, we’re almost certain we’ve just seen a microcosm of life itself. If you watch one movie this week, I hope it’s this one! Find it in a theater near you. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog in this way including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations and access to free giveaways!