Film of the Week: Quest
In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, one watchword for filmmakers might be #BlackLivesMatterInDetail. One thing we need to know about African-American experience is the minutiae: there should be films that present the ordinary, everyday reality of these lives in forms that resist cliché and hyperbole, refuse to glamorize, mystify, or stereotype. There is certainly a plethora of different possibilities for black American cinema to explore right now, from the Brechtian operatics of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq to the exuberant pop myth-making we can no doubt expect from Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. But in terms of realism, closely observed mundanity helps counter the idea that black lives in Trump-era America should be neatly categorized as either simply a case or a cause.
That’s one reason why I was impressed by a film that may not have come on your radar yet, although it has played at various American festivals—Life and Nothing More, by Antonio Mendez Esparza, a Spanish director working in the U.S. It’s the Florida-set story of a mother-son relationship, about a teenage boy going through problems at home and at school, and his mother, who keeps their household together through a series of diner jobs while dealing with the attentions of a fond but potentially troublesome suitor. Very much a kitchen-sink drama—the family kitchen is the dramatic hub for much of the film—shot in a more or less documentary style and featuring terrific performances by nonprofessionals, the film takes a no-frills dramatic approach that could be roughly located on a Cassavetes-Dardennes spectrum, and uses it to intensely revealing and moving effect. It’s one of the overlooked treasures of 2017: keep it in your sights.
Occupying a similar thematic territory is Quest, a remarkable debut documentary by Jonathan Olshefski (who, like Mendez Esparza, is white). Shot over a decade, Quest is a close observation of a North Philadephia family—although “observation” sounds coldly sociological, so it’s perhaps better to say that Olshefski, who was his own cameraman and sound recordist, was embedded with the family. The Rainey family are not, perhaps, the most ordinary subjects that Olshefski could have found: there’s a certain glamour in the fact that they run a neighborhood recording studio for aspiring rappers, and overall there’s a rather heroic quality to a family who come across as exemplary figures in their community. Even so, ordinariness—and Olshefski’s ordinary, level-headed approach to documenting their life—is the keynote of this intensely moving and involving film.
Edited by Lindsay Utz from 300 hours of footage—cut down to 105 minutes—Quest doesn’t set out to make the Raineys represent black America, or even North Philadelphia, but they do come to indirectly embody a community, given the challenges they face and the ways in which they struggle against them. At the start of the film, Christopher Rainey, aka “Quest,” and Christine’a Rainey, aka “Ma Quest,” are getting married after 15 years together; they have several children between them from previous relationships, and they have a daughter together—Patricia, “PJ” for short—who is just entering her teens. The couple have run their rap studio together for 15 years, where “Freestyle Fridays” have become a part of life for young local talent, and where Quest prides himself on being able to play a surrogate paternal role, helping engender “a sense of friendship, a sense of worth . . . I’m trying to plant a seed and let it grow.” In this sense, he comes to stand for all those unsung local entrepreneurs around the world who manage to cultivate and encourage budding talent, rather than looking to exploit it for their own gain.
Christine’a, meanwhile, works at a shelter for homeless women and their children. People call her “Ma”—although she looks remarkably young, at times even childlike—and she takes pride in her maternal role, even though it’s a pressure: “I’m pretty much mom to everybody.” Later in the film, her energies under pressure, she confides that it’s all immensely hard work: “It’s tiring,” she admits. One of her charges is her adult son William, who has a baby of his own, and has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor. William’s struggle for his health and for a living is one of the film’s recurrent threads: as he says candidly at one point, he hopes his son “won’t have to see what struggling feels like.”
One of the great virtues of Quest is precisely that it gives us a sense of what struggling feels like, without rhetoric or melodramatic flourishes. Utz and Olshefski are canny in parceling out information, letting things emerge, it seems, when the film’s subjects feel like opening up about them. Glimpses of Ma’s scarred arms and legs keep us wondering, but it’s only some considerable way into the film that she explains how in her late teens she survived a house fire, incurring serious burns on her limbs. The film, which doesn’t contain any overt commentary from its makers, doesn’t have to spell things out, but a lot is implied here about the living conditions that the Raineys have grown up with. Christopher gets more explicit when he reminisces about the project where he grew up, recalling the effects of crack’s arrival in Philly in 1983 and the experience of seeing friends dying from day to day.
For much of the film, the Raineys’ lives seem a long way from those extremes. But then, things take a shocking turn—and again, Quest shows admirable grace in not presenting that change in overtly dramatic terms. Throughout the film’s early sections, we watch PJ closely: a personable, lively girl who always seems confident and happy in the camera’s presence; who enjoys a relaxed, lively relationship of equals with her parents; and who has a strong musical talent, taking to the drum kit like a natural. She could be the poster girl for a “Children Are the Future” campaign.
Then tragedy strikes. We’ve just heard her parents talk about how theirs is a dangerous neighborhood and how they’ve placed a curfew on PJ coming home by a certain time. We also see President Obama on TV, inveighing against gun crime in December 2012: “These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, these children are our children.” The juxtaposition with what follows is perhaps the film’s only outright stroke of narrative rhetoric: we now find out that PJ is in hospital, hit in the eye by a bullet. We don’t learn much about why—except that a corner store is the focus of territorial wars—and, at the end of the film, we hear that the shooters are still free. But the incident itself isn’t Olshefski’s focus. What he’s interested in is showing how PJ and her parents cope with this drama, with fortitude and calm. What’s especially striking is a scene in which PJ is fitted for her first prosthetic eye. The experience is clearly upsetting to her—we see her huddled on a chair in tears—but PJ clearly trusts Olshefski enough to let him film her in the doctor’s office. The scene could have felt intrusive, but it doesn’t at all, because of the trust Olshefski seems to have built with his subjects.
The shooting becomes the focus of the film’s political content. The attack on PJ is clearly important to the community because of the Raineys’ neighborhood prominence: as well as running the studio, Christopher, sometimes joined by Ma, is a regular presence on local radio station WURD. Feelings run high at a march against violence under the banner Philadelphia Ceasefire, with an angry speaker sounding out against what he sees as black America’s excess of faith in celebrity figures to represent them: “How did Meek Mill and Jay-Z become our leaders? Where are Beyoncé and Rihanna now? Our role models should be us.”
Some of the young rappers we meet here may possibly be future Jay-Zs, but what matters most for Quest is having an eye not on the prize, but on pride. In this respect, Quest doesn’t offer a facile good news story: the rapper whose success Quest most believes in is a diffident young man named Price, but he has problems making the most of his skills. “He’s not on a straight path,” Ma worries early on; later, Quest takes a firm, calm, tough-love line with Price, who has drinking and other problems, and incoherently blathers at him about having turned the corner, although he manifestly hasn’t. It should be said, though, that Price’s honest but earnest talent is somewhat eclipsed by a young, unnamed rapper whose frenetic, witty exuberance in the studio fairly sets the screen alight.
Exemplary parents as they are, Ma and Quest begin to look a little out of their depth when PJ, now older, announces that she’s gay: accepting but confused, they look troubled as they admit their bafflement with the new categories of LGBT identity and launch into the time-honored parental hand-wringing about whether PJ should have been more encouraged to wear dresses more. But we don’t doubt for a moment that these confusions are something that parents and daughter will overcome.
The film makes its political points with an easy lightness. At one point, Ma uses her phone to video Quest being quizzed by police, who have pulled him over because his clothes fit a suspect’s description. But the police seen here seem generally affable and sympathetic, an integral and sympathetic part of the community. Where the alarm bells really sound for people like the Raineys, and communities like North Philadelphia, is right at the end of the film, with TV footage of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, making a play for African-American votes: “What do you have to lose? I will straighten it out.” Thankfully, Quest holds out hope, that whatever is to be straightened out, it’s going to be have to done by people like the Raineys and the communities they live in. “Our role models should be us” wouldn’t be a bad tagline.
Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.