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Quality of Life

(2005) *** Unrated
85 min. Relentless Company. Director: Benjamin Morgan. Cast: Lane Garrison, Brian Burnam, Luis Saguar, MacKenzie Firgens, Tajai.

Benjamin Morgan's provocative debut Quality of Life is a true San Francisco movie. Shot and edited in the Mission District, this fly-on-the-wall drama about graffiti writers makes brilliant use of locations to reveal the City without posing landmarks. But Morgan's feature is relevant to any major American city, with its meditation on the tension between creative self-expression and urban survival.

Lane Garrison plays Michael, a young man who tags the streets by night with best bud Curtis (played by former graffiti writer and coscreenwriter Brian Burnham). By day, both work for Michael's father as house painters, but a run-in with the cops disrupts their lives and threatens their futures. Michael's father provides him with an ambiguous role model: an honorable provider, but one who has subsumed his own creative impulses to keep his family afloat in an expensive culture.

Blankly painting walls clearly won't satisfy Michael, but tagging the city begins to look like an end just as dead. Though Quality of Life seems at first to be an outlaw movie, Morgan suggests that perhaps the best option for self-destructive graffiti writers is to allow the richly appointed advertising industry to coopt their talent. After all, ad firms promote legal graffiti on billboards and buses.

Perhaps unfairly, Morgan depicts "community service" as unproductive busywork b.s., but the writer-director also sensibly scolds unsensible local politics, represented by San Francisco's Graffiti Abatement Team. Off-screen, Morgan promotes reallocating the money spent on tracking, prosecuting, and incarcerating graffiti writers to public-school art programs that could provide healthy and productive outlets.

Quality of Life would be yet more interesting if Curtis weren't so obviously self-destructive; the argument pitting street "heart" versus growing up and dealing with urban reality probably didn't need a Steinbeckian melodramatic climax. Still, Morgan's final image is touching and well-earned. Quality of Life is a mightily impressive indie, with visual and aural style, a thoughtful debate about the outlet of urban art, and even a powerful spiritual bent.

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