For those who view the idea of making a movie as a daunting quest, the documentary Quest serves as yet another reminder that all one needs is camera equipment and life itself.
Which is not to say that Quest is ordinary in any way. Quite the opposite: director Jonathan Olshefski possesses the rare gift to capture life as lived. I’m always dubious of describing anything as “reality” if the people on screen are aware they’re being filmed, but in Quest, fact versus fiction matters much less than the truth of humanity on display throughout. Years fluidly and transiently pass — as they’re wont to do offscreen too — in front of our eyes as one family grows together in woefully-ignored neighborhoods on the outskirts of Philadelphia, almost like a documentary version of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood that equally focuses on every member of a family instead of just the boy.
Though the perspective is intensely personal to this family, their existence of communal poverty naturally adopts political dimensions, greatly aided by all involved largely avoiding directly commenting on such issues, saving the proceedings from possibly alienating by being too polemical or preachy. Olshefski and co. let the power of what they depict speak for itself.
Most refreshingly, instead of devolving into debilitating depression, the subjects — who must be exceedingly commended for willfully opening up the most intimate corners of their home — manage to persevere through their punishingly relentless hardships. They always maintain a hopeful disposition, which can’t help but uplift the audience’s aching hearts (in this way, they’re reminiscent of the title character from Mary Jane, Amy Herzog’s play that off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop recently produced. In times of such intense sorrow broadcast all around us, artists striving to find the joy amidst this potentially artistically-rich misery is a surprising and inspiring outcome of the Trump era, especially since so many tend to revel in doom and gloom).
With no conventional plot nor climax to engage, Quest relies almost exclusively on the thoughtful artistry of its meaningful construction. For instance, the repeated visual trope revolving around their ever-changing hair subtextually implies that this behavior stems from a desire to control something amongst the perpetual chaos.
Some may have a problem regarding the degree to which Quest attempts to portray this family as everyday saints, but it’s still too rare, and thus too important, to encounter movies that cinematically elevate the daily struggle of marginalized lives long disenfranchised.