“Quest,” the documentary debut of Jonathan Olshefski, captures the everyday ripples and a brutal jolt in the lives of an American family living at the poverty line. Like its subjects, the film is modest and yet remarkable.
Olshefski follows the Raineys over eight years, using the 2008 Obama election and the Trump presidential campaign as bookends.
Christopher (nicknamed Quest); Christine’a (sometimes called Ma), and daughter P.J. are a loving trio and respected figures in their predominantly African-American working-class community in North Philadelphia. The couple do activist work and operate, in their basement, a hip-hop studio for local rappers. They also serve as mentors for some of the young artists.
We witness the Raineys’ daily hardships, which include making ends meet with what the couple earn from their low-paying jobs. (He delivers newspapers; she works at a domestic-violence shelter.)
Christine’a additionally worries about William, her grown son, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer. She helps care for his infant boy.
Christopher is beginning to lose his considerable patience with Price, a talented rapper who, struggling with addiction, repeatedly messes up.
About a quarter of the way in, gun violence shocks the Raineys and the audience. Thirteen-year-old P.J. is hit by a random bullet, just blocks from where she plays basketball. She loses an eye. Her post-hospital scenes reflect both trauma and inspiring resilience.
A wonderful thing about this film: The Raineys’ ordinary conversations and interactions are so mesmerizing that what follows P.J.’s shooting, mundane by comparison, never feels anticlimactic.
It may be impossible not to be moved by the goodness, grace and dignity displayed by the Raineys as they weather challenges.
The solidarity and vitality shown among community members smashes Donald Trump’s characterization of neighborhoods like the Raineys’ as hellholes of misery.
Olshefski presents numerous powerful intimate moments.
In one of the most heartbreaking, Christopher, discussing gun violence in the neighborhood, recalls how saddened he was when P.J. apologized to him for getting shot, as if it were her fault.
At another point, Christopher and Christine’a mildly argue over an aspect of their daughter’s upbringing, but begin to open their minds together in the process. Even when tense, they acknowledge their love for each other,
At an anti-violence rally, meanwhile, a speaker tells residents to embrace members of their own community, not Beyonce or Rihanna, as primary role models.
Toward the end of the film, Donald Trump is on television, giving his “What do you have to lose?” speech.
“You have no idea how we live,” Christine’a says, snapping at him
She’s right, of course. But at the same time, few people in general know how families like the Raineys live, and this significant documentary can help remedy that.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Christine’a Rainey, Christopher Rainey, P.J. Rainey, William Withers
Directed by: Jonathan Olshefski
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes