Jonathan Olshefski’s debut is incredibly timely and timeless.
I hate to be the guy who compares Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest to Boyhood, if only because I’m the guy who tells people if they like Boyhood to watch more documentaries (including a similarly structured feature released around the same time, American Promise). The reason I kept thinking about Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making drama while watching Quest isn’t so much to do with the span of time it covers as the way it incorporates a political undercurrent. In Boyhood this is through characters canvasing for Obama. Quest, which begins with Obama’s election, is spattered with shots of TVs indicating the setting, whether it’s in 2012 around the time of the Sandy Hook shooting or more recently leading to Trump’s election.
The documentary could be seen as much more political, considering it bookends with elections and is then situated across the eight years of Obama’s presidency. The subjects are an African-American family in North Philadelphia, the Raineys. They’re proud voters of the first black President of the United States, and although his two terms don’t seem to bring them better lives, there’s always a sense that things could be much worse. And — from our vantage point viewing the film—they likely will. Watching Trump on TV talking about what inner-city black Americans need, Christine’a “Mama Quest” Rainey talks back saying he knows nothing of their lives.
The idea is a great one, yet it wasn’t planned for in advance. That’s another reason I keep thinking about it in comparison with Boyhood. That movie was conceived first and was ambitiously taken on by Linklater from the start. Olshefski didn’t think to make an intimate African-American family portrait spanning the Obama years, not even after he’d been filming the Raineys and after Obama won in 2008. Quest is the sort of documentary that is realized later on, whether it be at some point during filming or in the editing room. Fortunately it came together perfectly, and with very little contrivance outside of the obvious. There’s no need, because at its center is a coming-of-age story, which brings its own natural plot progression.
There are also a lot of hardships that befall the Raineys during those years, the kind that are, it’s always sad to say, good for the sake of the documentary. Some of them are downright tragic, others aren’t negative but are difficult for the family to understand. But the amount of adversity and startling developments here would seem too much in a scripted film. It’d be the makings of an overdone melodrama. In Quest, it can still be a surprise that so much can be touched on from cancer to gun violence to police harassment to gay rights to addiction in the story of one small family, but this is real life unfolding and probably not unusual for much of America. The combination of details may be different, the scope not so much.
Despite the film following a whole family and showcasing a community, having begun as a doc about the Rainey’s music studio, the one person who stands out most is daughter PJ. That’s partly because she does come of age and has the whole teenager/high school narrative to focus on, culminating with her graduation at the end, though there are other more serious things that happen to her and because of her. Plus we always want to look to and latch onto young people in stories like these, real or not, because of their innocence and because they’re the future. All the characters are compelling, though. As much as I like for documentaries to be contained stories, there’s no denying that Quest is, like Hoop Dreams and many others, the kind where you want regular updates on what’s going on with everyone.
This is not any one kind of documentary. It’s a music doc. It’s a political doc. There’s even some sports in there for a moment. It’s extremely up close, yet it’s hardly a small story. It’s about the past in a way that, even with all the tragedy and drama, now looks like more innocent times, and it’s about the future in the way it inspires hope that we can all overcome every painful obstacle and come to comprehend the issues and differences of everyone in this country. That makes Quest out to have a lot on its shoulders. It may not be the most important film you see this year. On one level it is just a slice of life, cut long and thick. And it will play differently now than in six months or in six years. The sooner you can see it for the first time, the better.