Quest ★★★½

[7]

If Quest were made by Frederick Wiseman, one imagines that it would be titled Good People. Jonathan Olshefski's documentary, about 8+ years in the lives of the Rainey family of North Philadelphia, certainly encompasses their relation to their vibrant neighborhood, as well as demonstrating how many of the problems they face are a direct result of social and institutional neglect of that same neighborhood. Quest is a film with a broad scope, to be sure. But nothing radiates from this film quite as powerfully as the fundamental decency of this family -- their unwaivering commitment to each other and to the various souls in their immediate orbit.

Part of what makes Quest such a deceptively unusual documentary has to do with the subjects themselves and those very commitments that make them worthy of our attention in the first place. Whereas many documentaries struggle to articulate a dialectic between the personal and the social, or the individual and their community, the way that the Raineys conduct their lives essentially does this for Olshefski in advance. He just needs to be sharp enough to convey exactly who they are, and he accomplishes this exceptionally well.

For example, Christopher "Quest" Rainey is a consummate father in both a literal and figurative sense. Of course he is a firm, loving presence in the lives of his children, William and PJ -- a good father and a good man. But in addition, the operation of his home-based music studio, where upstart MCs and Philly freestylers can just drop in, rhyme, and lay down tracks, speaks to a broader commitment to the youth of the community, particularly the young men. It's not easy keeping it going, but Quest knows how vital it is to these kids. (And, in the case of one troubled MC named Price, we can see how Quest may be the only positive force in his life.)

Similarly, Christine'a "Ma" Rainey is not only a loving, rock-solid mom to her own kids, as well as the wayward community youth for whom their house and studio is a crucial nodal point. Her "day job" is working in a shelter. Once again, her very existence demonstrates a firm connection between the personal and the social. And both Quest and Christine'a are highly political as well, involved in protests and community activism in and around North Philly.

And so, what would simply be the uplifting subject matter of a standard-issue documentary ("look at these ordinary people doing extraordinary things") is really only the backdrop in Quest. That's because the Rainey family is tested, far more painfully and egregiously than most any family ought to be. Suffice to say, as the documentary opens, William is already battling a life-threatening illness, and midway through the film, a random event befalls PJ that radically shifts the focus of the film.

It's at this point that Olshefski shows us something akin to an urban story of Job. The Raineys are mad, because on some unspoken level that they are too decent to ever articulate, they do know that they have done everything right, and some heinous shit has still happened to their little girl. What does it mean? Why bother? The remainder of Quest is precisely about answering that question, finding the strength to continue being righteous and good, because the next generation needs us to.

Michael liked this review