Quest: A Portrait of An American Family


Meet the Raineys.

Quest: A Portrait of An American Family is an intimate documentary that follows a north Philadelphia family over the span of almost a decade.

Watch the Trailer:

It’s worth pausing to hear some of the comments from Director Jonathan Olshefski. This is how he describes his project:[1]

Philadelphia is often at the top of annual lists tracking poverty statistics and per capita homicides. North Philadelphia is a neighborhood that tends to be defined from the outside. The evening news tallies daily tragedies and constructs a portrait of a scary and depressing place. These depictions fail to reflect the complexity and beauty of the community. North Philadelphia certainly faces significant obstacles, but it should be defined not by those obstacles, but on its own terms. QUEST is an attempt to reveal the nuances of a community from the point of view of the people who actually live there.

Cities are very often defined from the outside. People who do not live in the city view it with suspicion and fear. They only know about it from the news. And as we know, the news paints very one-sided pictures. These jaded pictures paint a skewed and incomplete image of what the inner city really is.

The traditional media often focuses on the bad and ugly of the inner city while completely (purposefully?) ignoring the beauty and complexity of the inner city. Every large city faces significant obstacles, but as Olshefski writes, no city should be defined by those obstacles. Quest helps us paint a fuller, more accurate picture of life in the inner city. In fact, Quest expands our vision of what the city is.

Quest is an invitation to see life in the inner city through a lens quite different then presented to us on the evening news. Quest doesn’t shy away from the brokenness but it also introduces us to the complexity, the compassion, the love, and the beauty of the inner city. And it introduces us to that brokenness and beauty through the lives of the Raineys.

Olshefski continues:

The Raineys are an incredible family and truly emblematic of what North Philadelphia has to offer, which often goes unrecognized. They love their neighborhood and are deeply invested in it. They build community and sacrifice their time, talents, and resources to make it a better place. They exhibit courage and compassion when faced with hard times and extend a hand to others when they are down. They also know how to have fun and celebrate life. Their block parties are not to be missed. Over the years they have shown incredible kindness to my family and me. I hope that viewers are able to feel just a fraction of the warmth and vicarious joy I experienced while spending time with the Raineys.

The Raineys are not an anomaly. There are countless other families in the inner city marked by this love, kindness, compassion, fun, warmth, and joy. And this is the power of Quest. It helps us get beyond false stereotypes of the dark, dangerous inner city and helps us see that even in the midst of darkness and danger there is also light and hope. There are many quiet families who live day in and day out in some of the most challenging and hopeless places, but they live such lives that infuse joy and hope into those trying situations. We need more of these voices to be heard.

Today, more than ever, fear of one another – fear of those who are different – is the overriding and controlling factor in many of our lives. Quest helps us, especially those whose lives are polar opposites from the Raineys, see that the world is a bigger place and that different people are still people.

What’s the goal of Quest? In one interview, PJ Rainey said that the one thing she hopes comes from having her life filmed for almost ten years is that it could create empathy in viewers.[2] This is my hope as well. This is why I hope many will watch this movie. Empathy is one thing we seriously lack today.

When we are busy attacking someone on social media we have no comprehension of empathy because we do not personally have any valuable face-to-face interaction with them. This is disastrous for our humanity. This is disastrous for treating one another in the image of God. This is disastrous for the cause of Christ. We need to engage and develop relationships with one another – even those very different from us. We need to learn to weep with those who weep and rejoice with the who rejoice. We need to recover Christian empathy. And this will only happen when we see the image of God, the dignity, the worth, and the value that each one of us has.

Once again, Olshefski writes:

We are living in an incredibly polarized time. Ignorance and fear divide people who actually have much in common. QUEST is an invitation for viewers to experience life from the point of view of the Raineys and to reflect on their own lives and relationships. My hope is that viewers will connect deeply and be encouraged, inspired and challenged by the Rainey family’s story. I hope viewers then live out this sense of connection as active participants rather than passive viewers and actually get involved in making a positive impact on families like the Raineys and places like North Philadelphia and push society to address the myriad unjust forces that threaten their hopes, dreams and very lives.

The best media, art, books, etc. push us not just to think, but to act. Quest is one of those artistic documentaries that should push us to think. But it should also push us to act. It begins with our minds and hearts. We need to change our thinking. But it should end somewhere beyond. It should end in action. Maybe that action will begin with prayer. Maybe that action will cause you to develop a friendship with someone very different than you. Maybe such action will lead you to attend a different church, a church culturally different from where you attend now. Maybe that action would lead you to move seeking greater diversity and social interaction with those who are different from you. The options for action are endless and indeed they are very contextual because each and every one of us is shaped differently and will respond differently. But my hope is that you will respond. Not just in expanded thinking but in transformed living.

Quest is a quiet movie. It moves slowly, purposefully. But in it’s quietness there is both joy and sorrow. It is full of hopelessness and hope. It is full of brokenness and beauty. This is not so much a movie about poverty, hopelessness, or suffering. It is a movie about family, hope, and longing for something greater.

One of the most moving scenes in the movie is when William, the Raineys older son who has brain cancer, describes his tattoo. One day while he was undergoing radiation he noticed the radioactive symbol on one of the machines. He ended up getting that symbol tattooed on his arm because he feels radioactive, worthless, and hopeless. As I sat there and listened to the hopelessness in his voice and saw it in his eyes I was reminded once again of how we are all created in the image of God. Not one single human is worthless. Not one. No matter how bad, how tragic, how sick, how broken, how deformed – no not one. All have worth, dignity, and value. William has value because he is in the very image of the one who created him and continues to grant him life. William needs to know that because it is the root of hope.

But hope, ultimate hope, is sadly missing from this movie. It’s a great picture of family life, inner city struggle, etc. but ultimately it is missing the hope only Christ offers. And it is exactly at this point where the church must come in. We are in the hood to offer hope. This is why we are here: to praise God, make Christ famous, and to offer the hope of the great news: Jesus has come. He lived as the Spotless Lamb of God. He has come to take away the sins of the world, as John the Baptist declared. He died upon the cross. If you believe and trust in him he has stood in your place. He has died as your substitute. Now you are righteous. Now you are loved. No longer an enemy. Now a child. Adopted by the King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Now there is hope. This is the hope we have to offer as an answer to the hopelessness of the hood.


[1] All the quotes taken from Director Jonathan Olshefski are taken from “Quest POV Community Engagement & Education Discussion Guide,”

[2] Nick Vadala, “10 Years in the Making, Not Philly-Focused ‘Quest’ brings Connection, Community to the Big Screen.” (Nov. 30, 2017), Note: There are some spoilers in this article. I’d suggest reading it after you’ve seen the movie.

Quest: A Portrait of An American Family (2017) Movie Review

Director: Jonathan Olshefski

Starring: Rainey family (Christopher. Christine’a, P.J., William Whithers, Price, et. al).



Twitter: @questthedoc


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