Day-to-day life turns dramatic in this study of an African-American couple and their daughter.



Warm, friendly and never for a moment patronising or condescending, Quest is a white director's portrait of an African-American family living in North Philadelphia. The filmmaker is Jonathan Olshefski who had never made a documentary before but who, on encountering the Rainey family and creating a bond with them, felt driven to make this film shot over a period of eight years. He saw it as an opportunity to show the lives of the Raineys - and indeed of their community - in a way that would reveal their particular hopes and problems while also bringing out the universality of the human experience.


Christopher Rainey, known as Quest, is a man who delivers papers and circulars while also being immersed in a home music studio where he encourages locals with musical ambitions, one such being the rapper Price. His companion of years, now his wife, is Christine'a and they have a daughter, Patricia, usually referred to as PJ, who is a student. The initial idea, which fits with Olshefski's notion that his film would be a kind of photo essay, appears to have been to create a work dependent not on dramatic incidents but on an accurate portrayal of everyday life. To sustain that at feature length is not easy, but Olshefski is his own photographer and has a sense of the visual that is helpful in this context.


Quest is a portrait of a caring couple so it is natural that PJ features strongly, while tender scenes show the bond between Christine'a and a grandson fathered by William, her son by an earlier marriage. But life is unpredictable and Quest is thrown off its original course when a shooting incident leads to PJ, a chance victim, being injured. This event and the response to it over the period of PJ's recovery turn the film into a non-fiction drama with a central thread. In consequence, the film needs to be structured around this, but Olshefski tries to go on as before regardless, and that puts it out of kilter. Price's insecurities only touched on rather than detailed come to seem superfluous, while another issue - a struggle against cancer - comes and goes haphazardly. For that matter there's another development concerning PJ herself which is not followed through and even the fact that the shooting leads to a movement advocating more concern and involvement on the part of the authorities is left undeveloped.
The story of the people featured in this film deserves to be told but, as it turns out, it could have been far more effective if presented as a dramatisation with actors, a film true to the basic facts but shaped to avoid anti-climax and to be structurally telling. That would have meant not seeing the Raineys themselves which would have been a loss, but artistically and dramatically it could have been far more powerful and more satisfying than this well-meant documentary. 




Featuring  Christopher Rainey, Christine'a Rainey, PJ, William.


Dir Jonathan Olshefski, Pro Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, Ph Jonathan Olshefski, Ed Lindsay Utz, Music T. Griffin.


Whispers in the Storm/Vespertine Films/ITVS. American Documentary-Dogwoof.
104 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 18 August 2017. Cert. 12A.