Film Review: ‘Quest’ Is a Bittersweet American Story

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On first glance, “Quest” seems to be a documentary about an ordinary American family. Its first scenes depict a mother frying up some bacon for breakfast, followed by preparations for a modest wedding. Over the course of the film however, director Jonathan Olshefski stumbles on a profoundly bittersweet testament to the human condition. At once universal and specific, “Quest” is a truly American story.

“Quest” follows the Raineys, a working class African-American family living in North Philadelphia. The film gets its title from the nickname of the father Christopher, who runs a recording studio that doubles as a business and community service for troubled neighborhood. His wife is Christine’a, who works at women’s shelter for abused women while raising her son William and Christopher’s daughter Patricia from a previous relationship. Captured with great empathy by Jonathan Olshefski, this documentary begins with their wedding. And as it follows them through the years, “Quest” paints a vivid picture of this benevolent family, showing how they overcome their past, present and future struggles.

With the candid portraiture of a home video, “Quest” invites us into the world of the Rainey family. Thankfully, they are a welcoming bunch, requiring no interventions from Olshefski to introduce us to their individual personalities and outlook on the world. Occasionally, this cinema vérité approach admittedly feels underwhelming. But for the most part, their everyday lives naturally reveal some poignant truths.

Notably, politics plays a significant role in their lives, which Olshefski deftly demonstrates. Often turning the camera towards television news broadcasts, we get a keen sense of the era in which they live. Indeed, as they closely follow Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, it is easy to relate to their sense of hope. And later, when Trump boldly asks of African-Americans, “What do you have to lose?”, their response is just as familiar. Christine’a incredulously rebukes, “you don’t know how we live.”

Through this perceptive documentary, Olshefski avoids Trump’s broad stereotyping, going in-depth to show us both the good and bad aspects of their reality. In that regard, another political speech from Obama decrying gun violence is eerily prophetic. When a tragic event hits home, it puts the dangers – and again, the unfortunate apathy of politicians – afflicting such inner-city communities into stark relief.

This horrifying incident turns out to be just one of the personal traumas affecting each member of the Rainey family. But smartly, “Quest” never asks for your pity. In particular, the strength displayed by the family’s youngest member during her unimaginably harrowing adolescence leaves you simply in awe. Like her parents and her brother, Patricia displays an unbreakable spirit and a remarkable capacity for love and understanding. And in doing so, the Raineys beautifully illustrate the hope that many Americans – and people around world – cling to in the face of adversity. In the words of Kendrick Lamar, we gon’ be alright.

“Quest” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)