About 20 minutes into the beautiful documentary Quest, a stray bullet strikes a 13-year-old African-American girl in a neighborhood in North Philadelphia, robbing her of sight in her left eye. What's remarkable about the incident is that the documentary would have existed without it: Director Jonathan Olshefski had already committed to making a film about the girl's family, the Raineys, and the errant gunfire just happened to occur within the flow of the day. The possibility of violence was always going to be a part of the film, which covers four years in the lives of a working-class family, but the reality of it is bracing on another level. The girl's heartbreaking first instinct is to apologize to her father for getting shot; she should have known better somehow.
The Raineys are ordinary and extraordinary, held up as both a typical example of a North Philly family with strong roots in the neighborhood and a specific collection of big-hearted, creative, and resilient people who have to paddle hard to keep their heads above the poverty line. The closest thing Quest has to a hook is the basement music studio where the patriarch, Christopher Rainey, produces recordings by local hip-hop talent, including his weekly "Freestyle Fridays." Beyond that, the film doesn't fit easily into a logline and its observational style, free of voiceover or titles or any other connective tissue, allows for some gaps and rough edges in the storytelling. Out of 300 hours of footage, Olshefski simply culls the truest impression of the Raineys he can muster.
Quest is bookended by Obama's reelection in 2012 and Trump's ascendence in 2016, which set a fascinating context for the Raineys' lives. On the one hand, Christopher and his wife Christine'a, who works at a women's shelter, are shown lobbying hard for Obama, encouraging friends and radio listeners to help get out the vote in a crucial swing state. They're also shown recoiling at Trump's infamous "What have you got to lose?" pitch to the black community, particularly his description of inner-city neighborhoods like theirs as "war zones." Yet there's also an acute sense that they're on their own, regardless of who's in charge of the country, and that the politicians stumping for their vote before Election Day are not going to solve their problems once in office.
For the Raineys, those problems are significant from the start. Christopher and Christine'a both had now-grown children from a previous marriage and Christine's son is battling a brain tumor while caring for his own newborn boy. Though his studio offers a refuge from daily hardships, Christopher's most talented rapper is suffering from alcohol addiction and asking for chance after chance after chance. Then there's the common grind of eking out enough money to stay in their single-family home and provide for their daughter P.J., who's a wonderful kid, but heading into the moodiness of adolescence. When P.J. gets shot, the film snaps suddenly into focus, but it never loses track of the basic stresses imposed on the Raineys and the close partnership needed to survive them.
Titled after Christopher's hip-hop nickname, as well as the aspirational qualities of the Rainey family, Quest could be received as a low-key answer to projects like PBS' An American Family and Richard Linklater's Boyhood, with the Raineys cast as an avatar of black working-class life. But save for the political echoes that frame it, the film resists the urge the generalize their struggles, for fear of losing the particular intimacies that make the Raineys unique. Olshefski allows full years to pass without much incident, but his camera captures touching bits of sketchwork, like P.J. banking in basketball shots in the driveway shortly after her release from the hospital or Christine'a telling the girl why her school-year wardrobe will fall short of expectations.
Quest is the type of independent film about American life that should be common but is rare in actuality, because there's nothing commercial or grabby about capturing a family's domestic routines so directly. That Olshefski could never have imagined a stray bullet transforming his documentary is part of its fundamental integrity, because he clearly felt a less dramatic portrait of the Raineys would have been compelling enough on its own. He's right. Christopher, Christine'a, and P.J. are beautiful to watch together, and there's hope in witnessing them persevere — in an underserved neighborhood, against shifting political tides, beset by the random cruelties of fate. They're a model family, even without the film needing to exalt them as such.