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It feels like an alarm is set at the beginning of "A Thousand and One" and we wait almost the entire movie for it to go off.

The first scene shows Inez (Teyana Taylor, who has choreographed for Beyoncé and sung with Kanye West) caring for a fellow Riker's inmate. So we're at least a little hopeful in the next scene.

Out of prison and hustling for work, she approaches a reluctant child who turns out to be her son Terry, now in shaky foster care. When she kidnaps him and they embark on an itinerant life — we see them in many homes over the movie's dozen years — we wonder how she can possibly raise a kid, on the lam, without getting caught.

For a time, things go fairly well. "Thousand" is a spare, collage-y movie with scenes that dip into the lives of Inez and Terry, often with months or years separating them. That gives us a sense of life being lived outside the margins of the drama. "Thousand" expects us to catch up on what we missed, making sure we notice that New York's Harlem neighborhood is gentrifying quickly during Terry's youth and that the smart, shy boy would have lots of opportunities if he didn't have to hide all the time.

"Thousand," which won the top award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is the debut movie from writer/director A.V. Rockwell. She's great at upending our expectations and turning around a scene with an unexpected line of dialogue. "Thousand" constantly challenges our expectations, not only of Inez — who is impatient, loving, defensive and pragmatic — but also of her sometime partner Lucky (William Catlett), who is reluctant to father Terry and keeps hinting at secrets in his background.

Taylor, whose previous acting experience was in music videos and "Coming to America 2," is incredible in a demanding role. Inez often behaves badly, but Taylor doesn't court our favor, secure in the knowledge that we'll care for her character because she is doing the best she can. She's also terrific with the three actors who play Terry at various ages, each capturing their character's solemn, watchful vibe.

We care about Inez, Terry and Lucky, so we listen when Inez tells her son that they can make a life together, that their rotten beginnings don't have to define them. And, as the city around them shifts from hiding them to squeezing them out, we hope she is right.

'A Thousand and One'

***1/2 out of 4 stars

Rated: R for strong language and brief nudity.

Where: In theaters Friday.