This gritty, but ultimately hopeful documentary, which recently screened at the New Directors/New Films festival, is an inspiring portrait of resilience. It centers on an African American family living in a troubled section of Philadelphia, and persevering despite hardships over the course of eight years.
The head of the household is Christopher Rainey, aka Quest, whom we first meet as he delivers newspapers during the predawn hours. He cuts a solitary figure on the empty streets, working a monotonous and physically taxing job. His wife, Christine’a, works at a homeless shelter and serves as the emotional backbone for the Raineys. The couple has a son, William, who is on the cusp of adulthood, and a preadolescent daughter, PJ, who inherited her father’s love of music.
From the very beginning, things are not easy for the family, whose poverty is evident through some startling images. In their house, open containers are spread all over the floor to catch water that drips down from the leaky ceiling. When Quest takes PJ to school, it is on a bicycle with only one seat. Another is improvised for her using a piece of cardboard.
Quest has a dream of becoming a successful music producer, which sustains him throughout the entirety of the film. He cuts albums with local rappers, and he also hosts regular open-mic nights out of his studio, located in his basement. A former drug dealer during his youth, he knows the streets after dark offer few safe options for young men. Along with providing beats and a space in which visitors can hone their craft, Quest broadcasts the open-mic sessions, which gives youth a chance to have their voices heard beyond North Philly.
Directed by Jonathan Olshefski in a highly naturalistic style—he minimizes his own presence, never interacting with his on-screen subjects—Quest follows the family in their pursuit of a better life, right up until misfortune strikes, swiftly and mercilessly. The first blow happens to William, who is diagnosed with brain cancer. Later, PJ will be an innocent bystander in a drive-by shooting: a stray bullet hits her, partially blinding her.
The film was shot over eight years, so there’s enough time to see William improve through medical treatment and to slowly pursue his ambition of moving out of his parents’ home, finding a rewarding job, and providing for his newborn baby. Similarly, PJ gradually recovers, although she suffers through a period of self-consciousness when she returns home from the hospital. Over the long-term, her injury becomes a single plot thread in a larger tapestry.
Quest features its share of harrowing moments. Besides poverty and crime, drugs derail the music career of a close family friend, and there’s even a stop-and-frisk incident that hits home. But the film never loses sight of the strong sense of community that’s been planted and nurtured, and which comes through for the Raineys when things are at their darkest. When PJ is on her way home from the hospital, neighbors organize a block party and cook her favorite foods, and a homeless man agrees to help keep the street clear on her special day.
Moments like these speak to people’s basic humanity and, combined with the Rainey clan’s refusal to suffer defeat, give us reason to be optimistic.
Quest will play this weekend in the “New Voices in Black Cinema” series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.