By William Engel
Santiago Rizzo made his directorial debut last year with the striking “Quest”. One of the reasons filmmaker Santiago Rizzo made his 2018 Slamdance Film Festival narrative feature “Quest” was to fulfill a promise to his life-changing mentor and friend, Tim Moellering. Moellering was a humble Berkeley, California middle school teacher and football coach who took Rizzo under his wing and helped him cope with his stepfather’s abuse.“Quest” is based on Rizzo and Moellering’s life together.
Based on a true story, “Quest” takes us through the life of “Mills” (Greg Kasyan), a twelve-year-old graffiti artist from the inner city who struggles to keep his grades up and endures constant physical abuse from his stepfather, Gus (Lou Diamond Phillips). He forms a reluctant friendship with his football coach, Tim Moellering (Dash Mihok), who continually reaches out to him and shelters him in spite of the danger he faces by doing so.
The film’s acting is its strongest aspect. Most notable is the charming, memorable performance from Mihok, marked by a layer of irreverence and snark underscored with a deeper layer of compassion. He’s presented as the exact kind of mentor that someone like Mills needs – someone willing to speak to him on his level without letting go of the desire to see him improve himself. Phillips, as the abusive stepfather, manages to be profoundly menacing without coming off as a caricature – and on a cinematography-related note, there’s a deeply intimidating shot of him lumbering towards Mills like a horror movie villain, brandishing his belt.
The film is not without its flaws, however, and most of them lie in the script. From his very fist spoken line – “Suck my dick,” spoken to his friend Diego (Lakeith Stanfield) – Mills is presented as a textbook example of a problem child. He has a nasty temper, he has no respect for authority, and when his teachers ask him to explain himself he just clams up, refusing to let them help him. His attitude is implied to be at least partially the result of the abuse he receives from his stepfather, Gus, and the feelings of betrayal stemming from his biological father leaving him.
The problem is that Mills, as he’s portrayed in this film, is too static. The film gives him several opportunities to learn a lesson and realize that he’s not the only one in the world who has it rough, but he seldom takes them. When Tim tells him that his tagging hobby puts more of a burden on the old, feeble, underpaid janitor, he reacts with apathy. Later, Diego chews him out for recklessly tagging a cop car, rightfully pointing out that he, as a person of color, will suffer a far worse penalty than Mills will if he gets implicated in the crime. But, again, the lesson doesn’t seem to stick.
It takes Diego dying at the very end of the film for Mills to finally realize that being a criminal isn’t glamorous and breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking the rules isn’t cool. It’s a fine message, and the scene afterwards of him cleaning up his own graffiti is quite touching, but the change should have happened gradually over the course of the film, not crammed into the last five minutes.
In spite of the flaws in its script, however, Quest stands as an engaging, heart-wrenching look into the life of an abused inner city, carried by strong performances, an impassioned score, and creative camera work.
For more information and to follow the film go here.