His name is Christopher Rainey, but you can call him "Quest" – that's the nickname this North Philly resident is known by. Christine'a Rainey, his wife and a women's shelter employee, is sometimes called "Ma Quest," usually by the folks who drop by her spouse's recording studio for his "Freestyle Friday" open-houses. ("I always feel like someone's mother," she says, with both pride and weariness.) They each have kids from previous marriages – her son William has just become a father and discovered he had a cancerous brain tumor in quick succession – and one child together: P.J., a precocious girl who had "rhythm from the door" and inherited her dad's musical talent.
When we meet the subjects of Jonathan Olshefski's moving documentary, the couple is stumping for Obama's first presidential campaign. When we leave them, Trump's on TV, moaning about the way African-Americans and hispanics are living in inner cities at a campaign stop. ("What does he know about how we live?" she asks. The answer is: nothing.) What happens to this family in between those eight years – the everyday grind of making ends meet and the joy of watching your kids coming into their own and the adjustments you make when the world throws you fucked-up curveballs – is the movie. It's not a time capsule so much as a scrapbook, a collection of moments that run the gamut from run-of-the-mill to gamechanging. But the way Quest lets you ride shotgun as the Raineys take the good, the bad and the ugly feels quietly monumental. There's no sense that their specific story is being exploited, pretzel-twisted or backwards-bent in the name of some … well, "quest" to make a difference. That, of course, makes all the difference.
Even casual doc viewers know, inherently or otherwise, that the best nonfiction films are only partially about their subjects – see Crumb, High School, Hoop Dreams, The Last Waltz, The Thin Blue Line, Grizzly Man or your own personal favorite. Quest speaks volumes about working-class life and the necessity of community, parenting, perseverance, speaking out, speaking up, hope. But the movie is not a case-study checklist of big-picture topics, or even a megaphone for ordinary voices drowned out in our perpetual, partisan news-cycle din. It simply presents the Raineys' victories and disappointments as their story – as an African-American couple's experience, not the African-American experience.
And while Olshefski's longform family portrait focuses on Christopher and Christine'a's relationship, it doesn't ignore (or for that matter, romanticize) the reality of their surroundings. Major events are filtered through TV reports and talk-radio snippets. Neighborhood cops can eat block-party BBQ or bring an innocent bystander who's been wounded in a drug-related gunfight a get-well card. They may also pull you over because you "fit the description."
In the end, what Quest gives you is not just well-earned empathy but the pleasure of the Raineys' company, and that is what genuinely makes it worth seeking out and seeing ASAP. It's a baggy, sometimes formless film; there's no attempt to fit the messiness of life into an easy-to-digest narrative, nor is there much sense that nearly a decade's worth of material was edited with a modus operandi other than "and then this happened." But it is a rich and rewarding movie, and in its best moments – a walk-to-school conversation between Christopher and P.J., a dressing down of a musician dealing with his demons, a climactic reprise of a drummer keeping the beat that provides a full-circle moment – makes the personal political and vise versa. We're coming to the end of a contemptuous, confusing, demoralizing 12 months. The fact that we get not only one of the year's best documentaries but also its one of the most humanistic looks at American life right before 2017 shuffles into history feels like a gift.