Jonathan Olshefski took almost 10 years to shoot his moving life-in-North Philly documentary Quest, an intimate study of one African-American family over the course of the Obama years. During this time, the Raineys suffer more than their share of tragedies, but the film runs just over 100 minutes, its focus on everyday moments rather than the momentous ones. Quest becomes, then, less about the disruptions to the Raineys’ existence than about the continuities, how love and community-mindedness make it all better no matter how rough things get. The Raineys face tough times, but they’ve got soul to burn.
The title comes from the nickname of Christopher "Quest" Rainey, a husband and father and sound engineer who records rappers from around the neighborhood each Friday in his home studio — giving young people a place to go, a chance to create. Christine'a Rainey, his wife, works at a women’s shelter and is called “Ma” by seemingly everyone she meets. Olshefski catches the Raineys in some verite moments, chatting and living, making beats and braiding hair, sometimes arguing about the kinds of things all families argue about. “Everything you want costs $100 apiece,” Christine'a carps at P.J., the Raineys’ youngest daughter, a teenager who plays the drums and works part-time at a local thrift store. Then Christine'a talks P.J. through the blunt facts of the family’s finances.
Other times, Olshefski sometimes simply gets them talking on camera. Christine'a explains, with a survivor’s matter-of-fact tone, how she got the burns on her arms. Christine'a’s oldest son William survives a brain tumor over the course of the film and near its end explains why, during his time in the hospital, he decided to get the symbol for biohazards tattooed on his arm: “That’s how I feel all the time, like a waste of space.” In the opening scenes, as he faces chemo, he declares that once he beats the tumor he’ll work to become a fireman. Quest’s one flaw is that it doesn’t always follow up in detail on what has changed for its principals as the 2000s edge toward the ’10s.
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The most upsetting sequences come early, when P.J., barely a teenager, gets shot by a stray bullet while crossing the street. She loses an eye, and we see her coping with the loss — she can still sink some jump shots — visiting doctors, having her bandages pulled off and facing relatives and neighbors for the first time with her new glass eye. She notes with youthful wisdom that some people’s well-intentioned declarations of how pretty she still is only making her more self-conscious. Olshefski charts her growth — she gets taller, it seems, every time we see her, a feeling parents will recognize — with warm sympathy, his camera never seeming invasive, not even when, on picture day at school, she experiments with letting her straightened bangs fall all the way over her missing eye. Throughout Quest, you see how her parents’ love and work nourish this vital, independent spirit.
There’s some minor tension in a late scene, when Christine'a and Quest discuss the revelation that P.J. has in her early teens outed herself as gay. The Raineys, a proudly progressive couple who have also aged right before our eyes, seem for the first time a little uncertain. “Remember when she was 2 years old and you bought her a plaid boy outfit?” Christine'a asks, while Quest puzzles over sexual fluidity: “There’s so many levels of being gay now. I thought it was either you’re gay or you’re not.” But they speak without rancor; they’re deeply proud of this girl and the woman she is growing into.
Quest talks local issues each week on a WURD radio show, speaking out against the kind of violence that caught his daughter. Politics simmer under the film: The Raineys are thrilled at Barack Obama’s wins even as they’re skeptical that he’ll actually do anything. The priorities of the federal government seem distant from their lives in Philadelphia. At least, they do until 2016. Late in the film, the voice that haunts us all speaks from the Raineys’ TV: “To the African-Americans,” Donald Trump says, “What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out.”
Christine'a snaps back at the TV: “You don’t know how we live!” Send him this tender, humane, gently probing film as a start.