So many of our institutions — media, church, government — celebrate the American family and its value to both individuals and community, but often only in the abstract or idealized portraits. Rarely do we see, much less celebrate, intimate accounts of an everyday family — a collection of folks doing the day-to-day work of being a functioning supportive unit.
But now we have one such window with Jonathan Olshefski’s new documentary following the Rainey family, of North Philadelphia, over several years. (The film is helpfully framed by two presidential contests — Obama’s 2012 re-election and Trump’s 2016 victory.)
The family’s core unit is Christopher (a.k.a. Quest), his wife, Christine’a, and their teenage daughter, P.J. There is also William, Christine’a’s grown son from another relationship, who is starting his own family, as well as a variety of neighbors and other relatives.
The film runs linearly, but checks in with the Raineys when it wants — often big chunks of time go by, but other sections slow down for important moments. At one point, P.J. experiences a potentially life-altering event, and understandably this draws more of the camera’s attention.
It’s an affirming portrait of everyday living — one day it’s a mother-daughter squabble, the next, everybody is out in the street enjoying some drum bands; it’s a day at work, followed by a night watching TV. These are giving, hard-working people; if they don’t have a lot of money, they do offer time and other social support. (It’s not for nothing that Christine’a is nicknamed “Ma Quest.”) And friends drop by Quest’s basement recording studio, where he hosts “freestyle Fridays,” a space for the neighborhood to congregate and spit some rhymes. But we also see the Raineys and their neighbors struggle in their lives with such headline-grabbing issues as addiction, gun violence, policing and health care.
The Raineys aren’t heroes or particularly notable people, as in most documentaries — they’re just people getting by with resilience, hope and even some defeat. And yet, we rarely see such lives depicted in a straightforward yet affirmative fashion, lives that are no less important than the marquee ones we obsess over. At a neighborhood anti-violence rally, one man notes that there aren’t any politicians or big celebrities marching with them. “Our first role models,” he says, “need to be us.”