There are biographical documentaries, fortunate to the point of being blessed, that start as fly-on-the-wall journalism and luck into better-than-fiction narrative twists. The remarkable Quest is one of them.
The film, directed by Jonathan Olshefski and edited by Lindsay Utz, follows the North Philadelphia Rainey family for a period of a decade, time marked by ambient details related to presidential elections (we start in President Obama's first term, and conclude with the Trump/Clinton campaigns).
Christopher "Quest" Rainey is a music producer who runs a recording studio for local hip-hop performers, while his wife Christine'a Rainey works at a shelter for homeless women and children. She feels like everybody's mother, and she may be — everybody calls her "Ma." They have children from previous relationships and a daughter of their own, P.J., and the movie's initial slice-of-life look at this urbanized, modernized Brady Bunch is interesting in its own way.
Then come the startling, Dickensian changes in fortune, the particulars of which are best left to Quest. Suffice it to say they involve sickness, struggle, and recovery. Backgrounded discussions of neighborhood violence move suddenly to the foreground in a heartbreaking way.
That heartbreak, happily, is not permanent. A movie that could have been about loss and defeat becomes something else — a testament to spiritual stamina, to the power of family bonds and their importance to homes, to streets, to neighborhoods and to cities.
The way the movie tracks time (teens grow before your eyes) and maps out family dynamics reminded me of Rickard Linklater's Boyhood. Both movies stand as tributes to patience, to showing up everyday with the determination to simply take what comes and outlast it. (The idea that you can literally be burned by poverty is a detail Quest shares with The Glass Castle.)
There are still more surprises in store, and the movie will put some viewers in the odd position of anticipating developments that some members of the Rainey family themselves do not foresee. This speaks to just how deeply Quest has embedded you in their lives — you almost feel like a next-door neighbor.
Certainly, you are invited to the block parties. Friends are there, and family, and police officers, who have a small but crucial (and inspiring) role in the Rainey family saga, (The movie also includes input from a resident who has his own perspective on the current Meek Mill controversy).
One party is held to celebrate the successful surgery to help P.J. recover from injury. She's shy, and prefers basketball to mingling, and can't wait to ditch the crowd to work on her crossover and her bank shot.
Alas, she must first navigate a sea of well-wishers who wish to reassure her that she's still beautiful.
P.J. doesn't want to hear it, and you understand why, but when you see her take what life dishes out and bounce right back, you also see they have a point.