Quest Review Moving Doc on Philly Family Makes the Personal Political

His name is Christopher Rainey, but you can call him Quest – that s the nickname this North Philly resident is known by. Christine a Rainey, his wife and a women s shelter employee, is sometimes called Ma Quest, usually by the folks who drop by her spouse s recording studio for his Freestyle Friday open-houses. ( I always feel like someone s mother, she says, with both pride and weariness.) They each have kids from previous marriages – her son William has just become a father and discovered he had a cancerous brain tumor in quick succession – and one child together: P.J., a precocious girl who had rhythm from the door and inherited her dad s musical talent.  When we meet the subjects of Jonathan Olshefski s moving documentary, the couple is stumping for Obama s first presidential campaign. When we leave them, Trump s on TV, moaning about the way African-Americans and hispanics are living in inner cities at a campaign stop. ( What does he know about how we live? she asks. The answer is: nothing.) What happens to this family in between those eight years – the everyday grind of making ends meet and the joy of watching your kids coming into their own and the adjustments you make when the world throws you fucked-up curveballs – is the movie. It s not a time capsule so much as a scrapbook, a collection of moments that run the gamut from run-of-the-mill to gamechanging. But the way Quest lets you ride shotgun as the Raineys take the good, the bad and the ugly feels quietly monumental. There s no sense that their specific story is being exploited, pretzel-twisted or backwards-bent in the name of some … well, quest to make a difference. That, of course, makes all the difference. Even casual doc viewers know, inherently or otherwise, that the best nonfiction films are only partially about their subjects – see Crumb, High School, Hoop Dreams, The Last Waltz, The Thin Blue Line, Grizzly Man or your own personal favorite. Quest speaks volumes about working-class life and the necessity of community, parenting, perseverance, speaking out, speaking up, hope. But the movie is not a case-study checklist of big-picture topics, or even a megaphone for ordinary voices drowned out in our perpetual, partisan news-cycle din. It simply presents the Raineys victories and disappointments as their story – as an African-American couple s experience, not the African-American experience.  And while Olshefski s longform family portrait focuses on Christopher and Christine a s relationship, it doesn t ignore (or for that matter, romanticize) the reality of their surroundings. Major events are filtered through TV reports and talk-radio snippets. Neighborhood cops can eat block-party BBQ or bring an innocent bystander who s been wounded in a drug-related gunfight a get-well card. They may also pull you over because you fit the description.   In the end, what Quest gives you is not just well-earned empathy but the pleasure of the Raineys company, and that is what genuinely makes it worth seeking out and seeing ASAP. It s a baggy, sometimes formless film; there s no attempt to fit the messiness of life into an easy-to-digest narrative, nor is there much sense that nearly a decade s worth of material was edited with a modus operandi other than and then this happened. But it is a rich and rewarding movie, and in its best moments – a walk-to-school conversation between Christopher and P.J., a dressing down of a musician dealing with his demons, a climactic reprise of a drummer keeping the beat that provides a full-circle moment – makes the personal political and vise versa. We re coming to the end of a contemptuous, confusing, demoralizing 12 months. The fact that we get not only one of the year s best documentaries but also its one of the most humanistic looks at American life right before 2017 shuffles into history feels like a gift. December 8, 2017