‘Quest’ Review: A North Philadelphia Family Perseveres in Slow-Burning Verité — Sundance 2017

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“You don’t know how we live,” mutters Christine’a Rainey (aka “Ma Quest”). She’s talking at the television, where a then-campaigning Donald Trump is blustering out his “What do you have to lose?” speech. Certainly no one is more deserving of her ire, but there are many people in this country, including those who consider themselves sympathetic to the working poor, who also have no idea how the Rainey family lives.

Enter “Quest,” a sweeping and intimate documentary about the struggles of an average American family. Not that the Raineys are average, but with 14.5 percent of Americans living below the poverty line, they represent a large swath of this country that goes largely unseen. For his debut feature, Jonathan Olshefski spent nine years befriending and filming the Raineys, taking his time to produce a meditative portrait of what everyday life is like for so many people.

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Christine’a and her husband Christopher (aka “Quest”) live in North Philadelphia with their spirited adolescent daughter, PJ. At the start of the film, Christine’a’s older son, William, is undergoing treatment for cancer, and she’s helping care for his infant son, Isaiah. She works at a domestic violence shelter, while Quest delivers newspapers and runs a recording studio called Everquest. “I’m pretty much like a mom to everybody,” she says. “I don’t wanna be everybody’s mom, but somewhere along the way they just started calling me ‘Ma.'”

Beginning in 2008, the film’s chronology is marked only by PJ’s growing height and shrewdly placed news clips, contextualized by the Raineys’ engaged reactions. “This whole birth certificate thing with Donald Trump is driving me crazy… All this noose imagery, too,” says Christine’a in an early scene. Jumping to 2012, Obama’s reelection causes Quest to reflect: “I wish my Mom woulda seen this. She woulda been trippin’.”

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Though he shot roughly 300 hours of footage, “Quest” doesn’t feel overloaded with action. Rather, the film’s slow pace aligns with its 10-year shooting process. Each scene breathes more life into the story, filling in its gaps with the gentle patience of blowing up a balloon. The mounting pressure never fully pops the Raineys — though at times, it threatens to swallow them whole.

Quest and Ma Quest

Courtesy of QUEST Fury Sound

Just when William’s cancer seems at bay, a stray bullet hits PJ blocks away from the basketball court where she plays every day, claiming her left eye. She soldiers on with true youthful resilience, wishing everyone would just stop talking about it already. “You looking like you okay, and I’m not, that’s the problem,” says one neighborhood well-wisher. Quest’s account of PJ apologizing for getting shot is about as heartbreaking as it gets.

PJ grows taller, becomes more accustomed to her glass eye, gets a job, and dreams of her own. But she never gets too old to jam in her father’s studio, laying down a steady beat for the freestylers he welcomes with open arms. Though she may challenge her parents to open their minds, their love for her never wavers.

It’s important to note that Olshefski is white, and not from the North Philadelphia neighborhood where he sets his film. In a director’s statement, Olshefski preemptively addresses concerns about his “rights” as a white filmmaker to tell the Raineys’ story. “I don’t know if I am the right person to answer that question,” he writes. “I made the film and I stand by my choices, but I don’t think I have any inherent right.” He adds that his friendship with the Raineys is “the most precious thing to me — the film and all that comes from it is a bonus.”

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One thing that came from it is a $100,000 MacArthur grant that went toward post production. We don’t know if any of this went to the Raineys for their time, or if they will see any proceeds from the film. The question of whether or not to pay documentary subjects is fraught, but when the subject is a family that sometimes can’t afford school supplies, the complexities become quite stark. So does the white gaze behind the camera when it lingers on a tattered basketball net, or on kids popping wheelies in the street.

For most of the film, these moments are few and far between, favoring instead the tenderness of Christine’a braiding PJ’s hair on their stoop, or a beat cop sharing a burger at a neighborhood gathering. The red hues and raw rhymes of the scenes in Quest’s studio give the film a rhythmic backbone, like a catchy hook. Even as “Quest” toys with expectations, (there are no chart toppers to be found here), the triumphs in “Quest” are much harder to spot, though they are mighty; love, family, and hope in the face of adversity. Nothing could be more harmonious.

Grade: B+

“Quest” premiered in Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival 2017.