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Review - Quality of Life (2005)
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Quality of Life (***1/2 out of ****)

Reviewed by Tim Sika

The plight of two young graffiti artists in the San Francisco Mission District forms the basis of writer/director Benjamin Morgan’s compelling feature film debut Quality of Life.

Michael “Heir” Rosario (Lane Garrison) and Curtis “Vain” Smith (Brian Burnam) are best friends, who, for over a decade covertly decorate the canvases of concrete and steel throughout the Bay Area. Arrested by the police for the crime of graffiti writing they reach a crossroads. Faced with the prospect of serving hard time they are forced to come to deeper terms with themselves, their friendship, their respective lives, their artistic passions, and their now thwarted artistic impulses which must now find alternative expression.

Though Quality of Life’s indie roots (low budget, limited resources) are evident throughout they in no way detract from Morgan’s ability to tell his story. A former at-risk youth himself who worked professionally for 12 years with at-risk youth in the juvenile justice system, Morgan knows this world and communicates it to his audience with empathy, affection, believability and realism. Kev Robertson’s cinematography fully supports and draws out Morgan’s vision, evincing a raw and vital edginess reminiscent of Darius Khondji’s work on Seven; and the director elicits astonishing work from his cast of unknowns: professional newcomer Lane Garrison (who looks like a cross between Eminem and a young Mark Wahlberg); amateur and former graffiti writer and artist Brian Burnam (who collaborated with Morgan and his producer Brant Smith for over two years on the screenplay); love interest Mackenzie Firgens; and veteran stage and screen actor Luis Saguar, playing the poor but hard-working father of one of the boys.

As drama Quality of Life is riveting and sucks us in from the get-go, providing viewers with a memorable and provocative look into the world of the writer of graffiti (originally used primarily by political activists to make statements—circa 1966—and street gangs to mark territory). It’s also thematically strong, and considers the compulsion to create via the breaking of the law; the arguable notion that graffiti is both art and crime; its foundation of rebelliousness (in a country founded on same) which government thinks is most effectively solved through squelched eradication; and the eternal struggle between art and commerce.

Morgan maintains that “Americans spend over 15 billion dollars annually to eradicate graffiti. Yet politicians and beaurocrats insist that we cannot afford education, prevention services, and the arts.” Hopefully Quality of Life—ultimately more of an emotional and moving story about family, friendship, faith and finding one’s place in the world than it is a political one—will stimulate viewers into continued discussion, analysis and debate over these issues, and impel them to take their concerns to their elected representatives to hopefully force them to confront and eventually legislate on the constructive side of the issues raised. Such would be a fitting coda for this confident and energetic little film.

2005 Tim Sika/ Celluloid Dreams

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