Growing up in the mid-west, where the summers are unbearably hot and humid, I spent many days at the library surrounded by the musty smell of old books and cool air. With its grand winding staircase, dark wood paneling, and antique tabletop lamps, the library felt like a relic from the past. In contrast to the old world environment, I discovered writers who were daring and modern and spoke to me as a young person. This is the place where I first read The Outsiders, unable to put the book down until I finished two days later. In the span of a couple of weeks I read all of S.E. Hinton's writing and then re-read the books again. The characters and stories struck a chord. As I watched Quality of Life for the first time, I was immediately reminded of S.E. Hinton's adolescent novel That Was Then, This is Now.
It's difficult not to make the comparison. At the heart of each story are two childhood friends, from economically disadvantaged families, struggling with their transition from adolescence into adulthood. Frustrated by economic hardships and limited prospects, the young men choose wildly divergent paths in life that threaten to tear their friendship apart. In Quality of Life the two young men, Michael Heir Rosario (Lane Garrison) and Curtis Vain Smith (Brian Burnam) spend their nights playing cat and mouse with the police as they paint the urban San Francisco landscape with their artwork.
Graffiti is a lifestyle, a means of expression and a passion they share. Unable to afford the lofty tuition at rarified art schools, the graffiti they paint across the city canvas is their mode of communication with the world around them. Like all modern art at its inception, graffiti is controversial, but also illegal. After a late night chase through the back alleys and truck yards of San Francisco, the two men are arrested. Facing the prospect of jail time, each man has to look inward and make life-altering decisions about the kind of future they want to create for themselves.
What Quality of Life does exceedingly well is capture the frustration of young men who have talent and no outlet for that energy. Instead of recognizing their talent and providing them with opportunities to further develop their abilities, the system criminalizes their behavior and makes it virtually impossible to stop the downward spiral. The strongest aspect of the film is the evolution of the two characters and the sad, but inevitable gulf that develops in their friendship, as they take radically different approaches to the circumstances they are dealt. Naturalistic performances from the lead actors and a strong supporting cast carry the film. While the cinematography captures the beauty and texture of the urban landscape the young men inhabit and the energy of making spontaneous public art.
The downside of the film is an uneven pacing and a tendency toward over-wrought dialogue, which weighs down the film in several sections. What could have been a powerful, quiet exchange between father and son turns into a heavy dialogue scene that explains Michael's frustration. But we already get it. The film has done a fine job expressing his inner turmoil without the character having to tell us all over again.
Despite these flaws, Quality of Life has its heart in the right place and is a lovely debut feature from director Benjamin Morgan. Even on a shoestring budget, he has produced something more real and authentic than a Hollywood movie with a hundred times the budget. Ultimately the film, like S.E. Hinton's novel, with its portrayal of a friendship, growing up and apart, strikes a resonant chord.