One man's street art is another man's vandalism, which is why graffiti educes mixed emotions in even the most enlightened progressives. The unspoken consensus seems to be that it's a vital form of American expression that looks great on somebody else's property.
Filmmaker Benjamin Morgan does a fairly nice job of capturing the moral ambiguity of graffiti-spraying in his feature Quality of Life, the story of two furtive defacers/visionaries at a crossroads. Refusing to pinpoint the youthful bravado of its San Franciscan protagonists as either heroism or folly, the movie recognizes that their activities may be an illegal incursion on the public and private good, while suggesting that similar impositions are going on at the highest levels of commerce. I was particularly taken by the juxtaposition of one colorful graffiti masterpiece with a shot of fast-food detritus being washed into a gutter; you don't have to be Morgan Spurlock to know which one of the two is the greater contributor to urban blight.
Quality is no unruly hip-hopera, but a classically structured profile of old friends headed in different directions. Mikey Rosario (Lane Garrison of TV's Prison Break), who paints under the name of Heir, may at first glance appear a total loser: He lives with his grandmother and father, working with the latter as a housepainter but risking his meager livelihood through nighttime graffiti forays and early-morning beer-and-weed rituals. Yet he's practically a poster boy for Junior Achievement compared to his cohort Curtis 'Vainâ?� Smith (Brian Burnam, also the film's co-writer), who, despite having a girlfriend and her son to help support, would rather indulge his penchant for increasingly self-destructive behavior. While Mikey is unfocused but passionate ' he'd like to segue into the 'legitimateâ?� graphic arts if he could just find a way to bum-rush a system he sees as rigged ' Curtis doesn't seem genuinely interested in any endeavor that doesn't entail breaking a law or two. His chemical intake gradually veers toward the hard stuff, exacerbating an underlying anger that may inform his art but is just as likely to be his personal undoing.
The casting of the slightly built Burnam (himself an ex-graffiti artist) in the latter role suggests that Curtis is the Edward Norton character, always smart-mouthing his way into scrapes his bud has to haul him out of. So when he steps to a guy about twice his size at a party, we expect to see him get his jaw pummeled. Instead, the obviously overmatched Curtis lays out his opponent neatly, and a bit of the film's believability goes out the window. It's up to the consistently fluid ensemble acting and colloquially sound dialogue to keep things on track, which they do admirably as Mikey belatedly embraces adulthood while poor Curtis gets himself into one melodramatic pickle after another.
Hats off to filmmaker Morgan for understanding that a story like this needs a dramatic build, even if the climax he and Burnam move toward does seem a smidgen forced. In real life, neighborhood outlaws sometimes do flame out in spectacular fashion, but they're just as likely to keep on keepin' on, raising 40s and crying 'no sell outâ?� until they realize too late that their underground aesthetic principles were so much knee-jerk avoidance. That's a lot of ground to cover in 85 minutes, and I won't hold it against Morgan if it takes him a few more pictures to master the difficult art of the deathbed flash-forward.