Barack Obama is not the subject of “Quest,” Jonathan Olshefski’s new documentary, an intimate and patient portrait of a North Philadelphia family. But the film, which begins and ends with presidential elections — Mr. Obama’s in 2008 and his successor’s eight years later — is shadowed, in some ways haunted, by his presence and his temperament. At one point, he appears on television, in the wake of the massacre of school children and their teachers in Newtown, Conn. “These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods,” he says, referring to the places that have been devastated by gun violence. “These children are our children.”
The simple inclusiveness of that idea and the feeling behind it — the sense that this nation, with all of its troubles, is something we’re all in together — may sound especially poignant now, and even a bit quaint. But a similar ethic of solidarity informs every moment of “Quest,” which brings us into the neighborhood and the home of Christopher and Christine’a Rainey and their teenage daughter, PJ.
Christopher is also known as Quest, which is the name of the recording studio where he sits behind the mixing boards as local rappers spit their rhymes. Christine’a is Ma Quest, and the two of them, without vanity or any expectation of praise or reward, serve as mentors, confidants and semi-parental figures for the people around them. Mr. Rainey wakes up at dawn to deliver coupon circulars door to door. His wife works long hours at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. If you lived in North Philly, you would want to know them. “Quest” offers the gift of imagining that you do, even as it honors their complicated, sometimes opaque individuality.
Mr. Olshefski doesn’t pry too intrusively into their lives. He and his crew record only what the Raineys are willing to tell and show, and a story takes shape in response to events in their lives. Time flows like a current rather than advancing steadily according to the calendar or the clock. Mr. Obama’s first term passes in the blink of an eye. Before you know it, PJ and her father are talking about Mitt Romney as the 2012 election draws near.
Politics is part of their world, and some of the issues that have recently galvanized public debate — health care, addiction, crime, tensions between the police and African-American citizens — figure prominently in “Quest.” Gun violence affects the Raineys with direct and traumatic force, disrupting the film’s calm, contemplative rhythm. (There’s another, blessedly benign twist later on.) The disaster that strikes them is upsetting, and the stoicism with which they keep going is at least equally moving.