To twist a popular Twitter meme, life comes at you fast — and at the same time, slowly as molasses — in “Quest,” Jonathan Olshefski’s living, breathing, stunning documentary study of an African-American family in North Philadelphia weathering a tumultuous decade. Inhabiting the loving, creative, occasionally conflicted household of Christopher and Christine’a Rainey with close-quarters warmth that never crosses the line from intimate to invasive, Olshefski’s film doesn’t set out with a thesis to prove. Rather, it finds its resonance as it goes along, stumbling into crisis as spontaneously as its human subjects do, and finally emerging as an essential reflection of social transitions — for better and worse — in Barack Obama’s America. “Quest” gains further accidental power, of course, from hitting screens at the shadowed outset of Donald Trump’s ideologically opposite presidency, which augurs a more compromised future for the Raineys and families like them; such nervy topicality only enhances this superb film’s more crafted virtues as it travels the festival circuit.
“How did Meek Mill and Jay-Z become our leaders? Where are they now? Where are Beyoncé and Rihanna now? Our first role models should be us.” So goes the most pointed on-camera vent in “Quest,” as we survey the crumbling, bullet-riddled, left-behind strip of Philly occupied by the Raineys and their almost entirely African-American neighbors. It’s an angry cry from the heart of a neglected underclass that doesn’t always feel an affinity with celebrity racial activism of the “Lemonade” school, where Black Lives Matter protests mingle with haute couture namechecking. With an extreme-right white Republican having succeeded America’s first black President in office, this talk of role models hits all the harder, as Olshefski’s film — without any need for its own rhetoric — calmly listens and takes stock of a decade that evidently hasn’t built on its socially progressive promise.
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They may have been burned — literally, in one horrific case — by poverty and deprivation too many times to remain entirely idealistic, but “progressive and proud” is how the Raineys identify. Christopher (whose hip-hop nickname lends the film its title) has overcome addiction to emerge as a community-minded patriarch, running a recording studio for young rappers in need of a platform, and voicing local issues on a weekly radio show. Christine’a (tellingly addressed as “Ma” throughout, and not just by her own family) is likewise dedicated to paying what little she has forward, working at a local shelter for abused women. Karma, however, doesn’t work quite as it’s supposed to for this kindly but hard-bitten couple. Christine’a’s son William must battle a brain tumor, while in an incident that becomes a defining arc of the film, the Raineys’ young daughter Patricia (or P.J.) is hit by a stray bullet in the street, losing an eye.
P.J.’s up-and-down healing process is depicted with devastating, unsentimental tenderness, as she gradually comes of age before the camera’s sympathetic gaze. Considering the girl’s first response to the accident is to apologise to her father for getting shot, her journey to self-possession is no simple one. P.J.’s psychological tumult gives a fresh, vital angle to the film’s investigation of the culture and legacy of violence in underprivileged areas. No one needs to directly bring up the Second Amendment on screen; “Quest” makes its quiet opposition burningly clear. Olshefski acts deftly as his own cinematographer, and time and again, his patient camera casually lands on loaded events and images that might seem contrived outside this astute vérité context, be it a shredded American flag or an ill-motivated sidewalk police search.
Tacitly political as “Quest” is, the film is often most moving when it occupies a purely domestic space, as the Raineys negotiate the expected challenges of raising children and maintaining a marriage atop their more extraordinary strife. Beautifully carving out a film that feels at once narratively firm and organically shaped from over 300 hours of footage across the years, Olshelfski and editor Lindsay Utz happily save room for the small stuff: the fleeting pleasures of braiding hair and shooting hoops, along with everyday arguments over finances and child-rearing, particularly as P.J.’s emerging adult identity challenges her parents’ expectations.
This is not a family that has the luxury of ignoring the wider world for long stretches at a time, however, particularly as a seemingly ever-running television set drops hints of the shifting social tides into the Raineys’ everyday routine. In one retrospectively chilling moment toward the film’s close, they watch one of Trump’s pre-election campaign speeches, as he specifically appeals for the African-American vote: “What have you got to lose?” he brays. As this graceful, lively, endlessly empathetic film demonstrates, even when the chips are down, the answer to his question is “everything.”