Documentaries are almost always depressing; whether personal, political or a little bit of both, non-fiction films can be tough to watch because, well, real life sucks. In the right hands, though, documentaries breed empathy and understanding like few other art forms. Jonathan Olshefski's Quest is certainly one of those worthwhile works.
For nearly a decade, Olshefski embedded himself in the lives of an impoverished family in North Philadelphia. Christopher "Quest" Rainey is a father whose main income is work as a paper boy. He spends the rest of his days helping raise family — both his blood relatives and his community. As a hip-hop producer, his basement studio is open to local youth for the ever-popular Freestyle Friday.
He's joined by his wife Christine'a (known in the community as Ma Quest) and their preteen daughter P.J., along with Christine'a's older son, William.
The film offers an intimate, cinéma vérité portrayal of the humble family as they go about their lives and make the most of their circumstances, from dealing with a leaky roof and budgeting for school supplies to organizing community get-togethers and speaking out against social injustice on the radio.
Soon, the first of many tragedies strike, as we learn that William has been diagnosed with cancer. Making matters worse, his girlfriend is pregnant. And, as if that weren't stressful enough, P.J. is later hit by a stray bullet from a local shootout and loses her eye. These are just some of the difficulties the Raineys must face amidst their already stressful lives.
There's a pervasive sense of tragedy as you watch the family's lives unfold, but this isn't ruin porn, nor is it a film that does any sociopolitical preaching — issues of race, class and societal unfairness are omnipresent, but the film doesn't pander with statistics or narration. Quest showcases the family's triumphs as much as their pain, offering a sense of optimism and, more importantly, real humanity.
Don't be mistaken — Quest is a film about struggle, both socioeconomic and emotional, but the painful moments are constantly met with overwhelming triumph and hope. Few will be able to witness this family's adaptability without confronting their own privilege. This Quest is a tough one to embark on, but the rewards are plentiful. (Cinereach)