With its opening weekend running concurrently against the presidential inauguration, expectations are high for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to resonate with the immediate political and social reality of the United States. The nature of digital workflows means that a documentary that began shooting over eight years ago can hit the Utah fest and still depict the experience of an election day two months prior. The film in question — Jonathan Olshefski’s “Quest” — is nothing if not timely, and the resulting symmetry to the narrative (which commences with President Obama’s campaign in 2008) is deeply satisfying. That said, the selection of “Quest” for the U.S. Documentary Competition speaks to more than just the doc’s barely removed conclusion. Rather, it is Olshefski’s humanist portraiture of one family’s quotidian lives that is certain to stir audiences.
Olshefski’s patient camera follows the Rainey family over the course of eight years in their day-to-day existence living in an impoverished neighborhood of north Philadelphia. The patriarch of the family, Christopher “Quest,” works odd jobs to support his recording studio while his wife — Christine’a, also called “Ma Quest” — is employed at a homeless shelter. They live with their daughter, Patricia (more familiarly “PJ”) and are for the most part a functional family unit. Olshefski does not hide the inner-city conditions that surround his subjects — one of the first memorable shots is of Quest draining the rainwater from a sagging plastic sheet that covers the ceiling of their home — but, by the same token, rarely exploits or dramatizes their squalor. Instead, an inordinate amount of runtime is devoted to the banal work and home lives of the family: stating (through voiceover) the importance of Quest’s struggling studio to community-building, paralleled more discreetly by Ma’s routine helping people not so far removed from her own situation.
The centrality of passing time to “Quest” is evident from its very first frame, a title card that situates the documentary during the presidential race of 2008. Olshefski trusts in an attentive audience and offers no other burned-in temporal markers. Instead, he offers other clues, such as cutting to a 2009 Obama calendar in the foreground or incorporating footage that has Christopher wearing a T-shirt that says “Spring Break 2013.” In addition to these details are the news broadcasts that capture key events in the American cultural landscape of the film’s duration, as recent as Donald Trump rallies. The television always seem to be turned on in the Rainey household and always tuned in to news channels. Consequentially, the family seems cognizant of history being made in the moments of their lives and particularly during Obama’s terms as president, the capacity for change that is never fully realized.
A traumatic moment happens to PJ partway through “Quest” and, given the turn’s violent nature, it occurs off-camera. Wisely, however, the filmmaker also leaves most of the reaction to this dramatic change out of the film (presumably, Olshefski found himself sorting through an unimaginable amount of digital footage to prepare the final edit). Likewise, this invasion of the violent surrounding environment into the Rainey’s internal lives transforms and enriches the daughter’s ensuing arc. As a consequence, something as simple as PJ getting her hair straightened and cut for graduation photos becomes unexpectedly stirring; not only is this the end of her eight-year journey, but we can appreciate the accumulation of her character in all its trauma and defiance. If there is a “Boyhood”-like moment to be found in “Quest,” this is it. More importantly, such personal touchstones eclipse the despairing cultural ones.
Olshefski follows the cinema vérité rules to documentary filmmaking throughout “Quest”: never intruding in the frame, moving outside of his subjects’ realities or including “talking head” footage. There are moments when the voiceover — undoubtedly culled from interview-like interactions with the Rainey family — undermines the film’s otherwise absorbing intimacy. Of course, the inclusion or absence of the subjects’ narration in such a socially invested documentary is problematic. To add Quest’s literal speech detracts from the poetic enunciation that the film itself offers to him, but its absence is antithetical to the rap music that he produces — Quest’s life’s work is to provide a platform for black voices.
There is also the question of Olshefski’s chosen format for “Quest,” in that the nearly two-hour running time can never hope to capture all the complexity and nuance of the eight years in the Raineys’ lives, let alone the transformation of their social situation within this span. Truthfully, I could have sat through another hour of this film without much impatience, and the success of a documentary like Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made In America” proves that more versatile presentations do exist for demanding documentary subject matter. Certainly, commercial viability was a consideration — in that regard, Edelman seemed to have struck lightning — and perhaps too the unsavory reality that a longer version of “Quest” would magnify: the realization that not much has really changed in the past two presidential terms for this family, other black lives, or the neighborhood they inhabit. As it is, this is the bitter truth that underpins even the most touching moments in “Quest.” [B+]