She’s like the girl next door. The young woman from around the way. The one you think you know, but you don’t. Mary J. Bilge has radiated that kind of approachable vibe her entire career. It’s disarming and endearing.
That don’t-I-know-you feel helps Teyana Taylor turn a very feisty and troubled mom into someone you’ll love. A wounded, kind-hearted person so believable you’ll want to comfort her and loan her your last dime.
It’s the 1990s. Six-year-old Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) thinks his mom lnez (Taylor) left him on a Harlem street corner when he was a baby. Now that she’s done with her jail time on Rikers Island, she’s trying to make amends. She steals him from foster care. Inez: “I’d go to war for you!” She intends to raise the boy, hoping he has all the opportunities she didn’t. Inez does hair. She can work and find a job. But there are no concrete plans. She treks from place to place trying to nest.
That thoroughly inventive premise spotlights the creative genius of first-time feature film writer/director A.V. Rockwell. From the jump, she weaves a captivating urban tale, eschewing stereotypes, cliches, and tropes so prevalent in the genre. Instead, she presents a compassionate mother/child relationship that endures the Giuliani years, ‘stop and frisk’, and gentrification. Watching this ferociously protective NYC-born mom try to beat the system and raise her son becomes more and more compelling.
The characters are rich, the narrative unpredictable, the dialogue as street-smart, heartfelt, and profound as that in a Bernice McFadden novel. Terry to his mom: “I’m scared that I won’t have a home no more. It’s gonna feel like we ain’t never happened.” Inserting a compassionate boyfriend, Lucky (William Catlett, Lovecraft Country), into the mix is genius. In someone else’s hands, this father figure would be an abusive antagonist just to pour more drama on the protagonists and help audiences feel more empathy (The Color Purple). Instead, Rockwell makes the character flawed but paternal—unfaithful but loving. In one of the most touching scenes, little Terry, thinking he’s intruding on his mom’s relationship with her new man, asks Lucky: “Am I in the way.” Lucky: “You’re a blessing.” It’s enough to melt anyone’s heart.
Taylor’s searing portrayal, of a rebellious woman desperately in need of the kind of love she gives, would be nominated for an Oscar in a better world. She makes Inez’s successes and failures monumental. Her maternal instincts, broken heart, and ability to forgive high drama. The character is indelible because the talented actor inhabits the body of a fiery emotionally distraught person. Someone who’s been beaten down by life is trying to become respectable but never forgets where she came from. Inez to the older Terry: “My body was a playground for thousands of ni–a’s until you were born.”
The supporting cast all seem emotionally connected. Adetola as young Terry, Aven Courtney as the 13-year-old boy and the stoic moody Josiah Cross (King Richard) as the adolescent blend together seamlessly. Cross, especially, is destined for stardom. While Catlett could play any Morgan Freeman part.
The camera lens is never intrusive (cinematographer Eric Yue), and the blue-collar apartments look lived in (production designer Sharon Lomofsky; set decorator Lauren Crawford). The character-relevant clothes may have been swiped from T.J. Maxx (costume designer, Melissa Vargas), and the music soothes, inspires, or dramatizes where it should (composer Gary Gunn). It all moves so fast. Time goes by quickly (editors Sabine Hoffman; Kirstan Sprague).
Just as you think you’ve heard every urban fable possible, this family drama refreshes the genre and sets a new standard. Rockwell pours more hard living and love into this one-hour and 57-minute film than a dramatic TV series could in an entire season. It’s wonderful on every level, with food for the soul.
When the movie ends, you’ll love Inez’s spunk so much you’ll want to ask her out for a cup of coffee.