As deceptively modest and quietly ambitious as its urban working-class hero, the ironically titled Quality of Life unfolds inside the graffiti subculture of San Francisco’s Mission District. Mikey “Heir” Rosario (Lane Garrison) and his best friend, Curtis “Vain” Smith (Brian Burman), spend their days painting houses for Mikey’s dad and their nights writing graffiti and running from the cops. After an arrest lands the pair on probation, Curtis gets laid off and starts on a downward spiral, straining his relationship with single mom Lisa (Mackenzie Firgens), while the more levelheaded Mikey begins actively looking for a way out of the workaday grind.
It sounds like a perfectly ordinary, even undistinguished, narrative of underdog aspirations, and at heart that’s exactly what it is, but first-timer Benjamin Morgan doesn’t oversell the story, deploying Kev Robertson’s moody cinematography to maximum effect, particularly during the hip-hop-scored midnight runs that dominate the early minutes before the plotline kicks in. Shot on location in the Mission District, Quality of Life establishes a strong sense of milieu in these street scenes, and while the movie’s not without its flaws—much of the dialogue is colorless and Lisa seems a bit too together to be hanging out with Curtis—it’s never less than credible. Making his film debut, Garrison is self-effacing and likable, his naturalistic performance perfectly in sync with the pervasive low-key mood, which allows the movie to keep its cool even when events turn tragic.
Evidently a last-minute substitution as the simmering Curtis, co-screenwriter Burman seldom musters the requisite rage, but it’s clear that he and Morgan identify with these aspiring artists—a suggestive scene finds Mikey applying for an ad design job only to be turned away solely because he lacks an art-school degree and his prospective boss can’t justify violating “the system,” under which art students essentially trade exorbitant tuition costs for the promise of post-graduation work. (That he later gets the job anyway is indicative of the movie’s underlying ambivalence about class mobility.) Glimpsed several times throughout the film, the market-driven world of advertising is the polar opposite of the exhilarating art-for-art’s-sake of graffiti: In a world of limited options, is respectability the inevitable price of sustainability? Maybe so, but it’s hardly incidental that the movie’s climactic act of violence takes place not on the streets but in an office.