Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Jonathan Olshefski's QUEST, another top-notch documentary, makes theatrical debut in Philly

2017 has been a banner year for documentaries (and we still have a month left to discover even more of these). To the current list of winners must be added QUEST: A Portrait of an American Family, the new doc from Jonathan Olshefski that covers a period of some eight years, along with the events, growth and change that come to one unusual and yet, one might think, fairly typical Black family who lives in North Philadelphia.

Mr Olshefski, pictured at right (with someone whom I am guessing is a member of his own family), became a friend of his movie family a couple of years before he began filming them and, as he states in his press release, "That friendship is the most precious thing to me -- the film and all that comes from it is a bonus." Quite a bonus it turns out to be.

The documentary's subject family is the Raineys: father Christopher Rainey (shown below, left, and known as Quest), Christine'a Rainey (known as Ma and shown below, right), their daughter P.J. (shown at left, two photos below), William Withers (the son of Christin'a via an earlier marriage) and eventually William's own son.

There are also a number of folk we meet from the family's North Philly neighborhood in which Quest runs a music studio that boasts a weekly Friday-night talent fest where neighborhood kids come and practice their original rap songs. (Not surprisingly, I guess, these are all males.)

Chief among the rappers is a long-time friend of Quest, who has lost himself in booze and drugs yet keeps trying to make some sort of comeback. His scenes are among the movie's saddest and least hopeful. But hold on, things may change.

Ma works in a community center where she brings home not much pay, and it was never clear to me how much income dad's studio might be bringing in. But somehow the family manages. There is a scene well along in the film regarding school supplies and new sneakers that absolutely nails the plight of families who simply don't have enough income to supply their kids with their "wants" in addition to their "needs." This makes for a powerful few moments indeed.

There is no overt mention here of "the Black experience" nor of any difference between the Black and the White environments (which so fills the new movie Mudbound, which my correspondent, Lee Liberman will be covering here next month). Yet race and class are as ever-present in this documentary as is possible because we are placed so firmly in the shoes of this family. James Baldwin, I suspect would have appreciated this film, even though it has been made by a white man. (I think he'd have also appreciated Mudbound, which was made by Dee Rees, a black woman.)

As a filmmaker, Mr. Olshefski does a terrific job with his camera, placing it right into the midst of things yet almost never allowing it to appear obtrusive. This lets us come, film-wise, as close as possible to the lived experience. Along the way, we must deal with cancer, sudden and shocking street violence, and a GLBT issue to boot. The last of these, in fact, provokes the most conflict we've seen between man and wife. Among other of the movie's powerful moments are those in which Ma talks about the house fire from which she escaped but that left her badly scarred. (Later, in a particularly lovely scene, Quest holds her hand and tells her how he feels about those scars.)

The film begins during Obama's first term, takes us through his re-election and into the racist campaign of lying miscreant, Donald Trump. To hear that idiot mouthing his appeal for Blacks and Latinos to vote for him -- "What have you got to lose?" --  in the midst of watching this amazing documentary, is to experience near-stroke-inducing anger over what too much of our country is currently doing to itself.

If the Raineys can be seen as a "typical" Black family, the documentary also points up how impossibly tricky and useless that adjective really is. Olshefski film offers up a family that surprises us, makes as smile and breaks our hearts.  There is even, toward the end, a major Black Lives Matter moment in which we hold our breath.

Despite all the difficulties that occur over the years, Quest is finally somewhat hopeful, and the Raineys are, I believe, as memorable as any family yet captured in a documentary.

From First Run Features and lasting 104 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, December 1, in Philadelphia at the Ritz on the Bourse, on December 8 in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and in Los Angeles on December 15 at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. It will open in the weeks following in another half dozen cities. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here.

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