Film Review: Quest

'Quest' offers a haunting glimpse of a lower-income family’s resilience under extreme pressure.
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Director Jonathan Olshefski’s documentary Quest doesn’t merely record the pain and suffering endured over several years by aspiring rap music producer Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his family. Rather, the film captures such a focused view of the many tribulations that befall Quest, his caring wife, Christine’a, their young daughter, PJ, and their extended family in the poverty-stricken black neighborhood of North Philadelphia that misery itself becomes a character overshadowing nearly all others.

First dropping the audience into the Raineys’ lives around the time of the 2012 presidential election, the portrait encompasses nearly half a decade. It’s a hectic period for the Raineys, during which Quest pursues a dream of music-business success putting in hours of work inside his well-equipped home studio, recording and producing rap artists whom he and Christine’a also manage.

Quest, who grew up in the projects, raised by a mostly single mother, now earns a living delivering newspapers and working odd construction jobs, while Christine’a, an equal partner in their marriage and parenting of PJ, works at a homeless shelter. Without much comment, but with genuine sensitivity, the film conveys Quest and Christine’a’s ambition to provide a safer environment and better opportunities for their family than what they were dealt as children. Christine’a reveals that, although she and her husband each have adult children from previous relationships, it was having PJ together that finally solidified their relationship as Quest and Ma Quest, as she’s affectionately known throughout their hood.

Christine’a and Quest, often filmed at home delivering confessionals to camera, are compelling narrators, and Olshefski, who also served as cinematographer, exhibits a keen sense of how to frame their emotions. Those emotions are usually under duress. Christine’a’s adult son, William, is introduced just as he’s become a father for the first time, and after the family learns of the cancerous tumor growing on William’s pituitary gland. The agony Christine’a feels as a mother resonates in her confessional. “He’s scared. I’m scared for him.”

But William, despite later showing off a tattoo that expresses his hurt and his defiance, doesn’t get the depth of coverage or screen time to become a real character in the story. He discusses trying to find a stable home for his growing family, but the film doesn’t detail how he and his son’s mother deal with, or pay for, his cancer treatment, along with child care. Ultimately, William’s struggle is reduced to being just another facet of the Raineys’ tough life, which is toughest perhaps on PJ, whom we meet as a vibrant adolescent.

Unfortunately, fate and/or random circumstance provide the youngest Rainey with the film’s most memorable storyline, as PJ becomes a victim of her neighborhood’s rampant gun violence. She survives, and bravely exposes her healing journey for the sake of this documentary. Something horrible happens to her at a young, impressionable age, and the film captures her subsequent anger and dejection, and eventual acceptance, followed by a rebound in mind and spirit. The fullness of her experience as presented here allows PJ the space to define herself in ways that are surprising and inspiring. She and her story transcend the film’s preoccupation with inner-city struggle.

Olshefski attempts along the same lines to involve the audience in Quest and Christine’a’s quest to produce a hit with one of their rap artists. However, the movie provides little context for their success or failure, showing countless recording sessions and an AM-radio interview with Quest on-air promoting his stable of talent, but giving no hint of whether anyone’s listening to or buying their product. The scene of one of their rappers performing at a block party to the interest of no one in particular echoes the overall tone of woe that seems to emerge as the film’s raison d’être.

Beyond denoting the Raineys’ belief that hard work and perseverance can lift them up, Quest appears most invested in showing that it’s virtually impossible for some folks to make that sort of progress. Yet, the film doesn’t seem substantially interested in exploring why that might be the case.

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