“You are graded on everything from now until you die.”                                -Tim Moellering










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“I’m so grateful for the many mentors who’ve helped me along the way.

“No child should have seen or experienced some of the things that were almost a daily part of my life. No child should be thrown away – Mentors are true Angels.” 

“Lying might get you what you want in the short-run, but honesty will get you what you need in the long-run.” -Tim Moellering

The Graffiti Artist’s Promise

Santiago Rizzo made his debut film, ‘Quest,’ to honor the middle-school coach and teacher who refused to give up on him.

By Mick LaSalle

Photography by Patrick Tehan

It happens, but not very often—a movie that shows you something you might never have known about, that opens up a pocket of human experience in a way that’s moving and illuminating. Currently on the film festival circuit is Quest, director Santiago Rizzo’s lightly fictionalized drama about his own harrowing childhood. By the time Rizzo, ’03, started his freshman year at Stanford, he had seen more of the dark side of human nature than most of us encounter in a lifetime.

“I lived by the Ashby BART station,” recalls Rizzo, ’03. “Now Berkeley is an affluent place, but when I was growing up, it was not.” His parents divorced when he was 5, and his mother remarried. That’s when his nightmare began.

“My stepfather was nice to my mother,” Rizzo says, “but he was a monster to me.” When his mother wasn’t around, his stepfather beat him. But when Santiago told his mother what was happening, she didn’t believe him.

“That was the hardest blow,” he says. “My stepfather was very manipulative. He would threaten me, and out of fear, I used to tell people the bruises were from soccer practice. The times I did tell my mom he hit me, I would get beaten when she went to work.”

Police officers came by the house often — his younger brother would call them whenever Santiago was getting abused. But his brother was so terrified of their stepfather that he couldn’t say anything when the officers arrived, and the stepfather’s version of events prevailed. “I had a lot of resentment toward authority because they did not protect me,” Rizzo says.

He started spending more and more time on the street. “The street felt safer than my home,” Rizzo says. Starting when he was 8 years old, he would go to the nearby gas station to wash windows for tips, and he slept at his friends’ houses as often as he could.

“I learned how to charm my friends’ parents so they would keep me around,” he says. “I had a code word I would tell one friend’s mother on the phone and I could head straight over there.”

One day, tired of getting beaten, he pulled a knife on his stepfather. “He was a good seven feet away, and I just wanted him to know that he needed to stop,” Rizzo recalls. “He walked right by me and called the police.”

For Self Protection.

Rizzo was only 12 years old. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and spent the night in juvenile hall. “I remember getting strip-searched. It was the scaredest I’d ever been as a child, alone in a cell and sweating like a man. I’d never smelled that kind of smell coming out of my body. It was like a skunk’s smell.” He eventually went to a foster home, where he spent several weeks.

Around that time, Rizzo became a graffiti artist, which only got him into more trouble. His tag, SEEP, was soon all over the East Bay. By the time he was 13 and attending Willard Middle School, he was tagging dozens of times a day — whenever he was on the bus, whenever he saw a clean surface.

“When I was a kid, nobody believed I was SEEP,” he says. “I ended up wanting recognition, and the way I got it was through petty crime and graffiti.” Tagging became an addiction. “It was a rush, a dopamine hit — a way for me to be seen. It was also a way for me to be defiant toward the world when the world wasn’t particularly kind to me.”

‘Instead of punishing me or throwing me out of the house, he offered me $1,000 to get straight A’s that semester.’

The boy was on a destructive path. And then he met Tim Moellering, a teacher and the after-school activities coordinator at Willard. He was also the school’s football coach.

He had just finished talking to Rizzo’s homeroom class about the sports program when the assertive seventh-grader followed him out of the room and posed a question: Was he too small to be on the football team? To his surprise, the coach said no. “I was extremely athletic,” Rizzo says. “I played linebacker. Tim would tell me that though I was the smallest and most annoying, I made the team because I was the most aggressive player on the field.”

Rizzo had plenty of problems, including fighting and getting suspended. But Moellering — who believed there was no such thing as a bad kid, only a bad situation — saw his potential. He set out to earn Rizzo’s trust by showing the boy that he trusted him. Moellering asked Rizzo to tally the money collected at the school dance. He tasked him with mopping the basketball court. He noticed that Rizzo consistently worked harder than anyone else.

And Then It….Started!  Slowly At First.  Then Faster and Faster.

But change came slowly. “I was very skeptical of any adult,” Rizzo says. “I was probably meaner to Tim than anybody he’d ever met. Yet he still did not judge me.”

Moellering started allowing Rizzo to stay at his house when he had nowhere else to go. When he was 14, right before Rizzo entered high school, he moved in for good.


But Rizzo’s struggles didn’t simply end. Early in his friendship with Moellering, he had earned a reputation for selling marijuana. At one point, someone broke into Moellering’s house and stole a quarter pound of Rizzo’s stash. “Instead of punishing me or throwing me out of the house, he offered me $1,000 to get straight A’s that semester,” Rizzo says. It worked.

“Because Tim had such respect and such compassion, and didn’t preach but asked me questions, it was impossible not to listen to him. When someone is so honest in front of you, you can push it away, you can get defensive, but at some point you’re going to get reflective. When I got Tim’s love and recognition, I didn’t need the graffiti anymore,” Rizzo says.


Rizzo started putting energy into school. He became student body president in his junior year at Berkeley High, and he focused on having a future and getting into a good college. He first encountered Stanford in 1998, when he was one of the 22 students accepted into the competitive Stanford Youth Environmental Science Program, founded by Michael McCullough, ’88, MS ’88, and Ana Rowena McCullough, ’95, JD ’99. Michael McCullough remembers Rizzo as being “a nice kid, smart and resourceful.” He also recalls how hard Rizzo worked.

In his six weeks on campus, Rizzo fell in love with the university. Months later, he was accepted. “That program and then Stanford really helped my confidence and helped me realize I have something to offer,” he says.

At Stanford, Rizzo majored in economics. “I wanted to make money,” he says frankly. “I didn’t want to be poor — I grew up poor.” He minored in psychology and was a few courses short of a second minor in drama. The latter proved handy. “Tim wanted to write a book about [our life together],” Rizzo says. “I said, ‘Why do that? We should write a screenplay.’ ”

The idea of turning their screenplay into a film was on Rizzo’s mind when he moved to New York after graduation. He worked in finance, first as a stock analyst and later as the founder and managing director of Outlier Capital Management, an alternative-energy hedge fund.

“I was saving money,” Rizzo says. “One year, I made almost a million dollars, but I was sleeping in a studio above an Indian restaurant. I was very frugal.”

In 2010, seven years after Rizzo left California, he packed up his New York apartment and headed for Berkeley to care for Moellering, who was battling pancreatic cancer. It turned out to be Moellering’s final year. He died on January 18, 2011, at age 53.

“I was sitting with him alone, holding his hand, during his final breath — and when he took it, I whispered in his ear that I would make this movie for him,” Rizzo says.

Keeping that promise has come at a cost. Rizzo had to go back into the pain of his childhood — a pain that he had previously buried in work. To raise money for making Quest, he sold the house he and Moellering had bought together in 2010.

Santiago Rizzo’s Quest – SOLD OUT!

“I gave up my savings, and I don’t know if I can go back to Wall Street or my career as I had it,” Rizzo says. “But I have a beautiful piece of art that I hope gets into the world.”

And it is getting out there. At the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, Quest sold out its two screenings within 48 hours, and a third screening was added. It was also screened at the Austin Film Festival and slated for the Napa Valley and Fort Lauderdale festivals in November. Rizzo’s film depicts his home situation and his life on the street, leading up to the day that he moved in with Moellering.

For Rizzo, making Quest was about passing on to others what Moellering gave him. “I wanted to share Tim’s love and the inspiration of all the other mentors in the world who were courageous enough to love when everyone else had given up,” he says. “I wanted to inspire other kids to trust in their struggle and to know they’re not alone — that often the child who is most disturbed and the most intense has the most potential, if he or she can channel his or her energy in the right direction.” •

Santiago Rizzo’s Quest – The Truth Always Rises

Confronting What Happened & Rising Through the Pain

By Alicia Alexandra Nichols (Emcee for the Napa Valley Film Festival)

The Bay Area native’s first full length feature film paints the true story of an abused student athlete and underground street artist. A fresh faced talent collective of sincere performances mirror Moellering own reputation as an integrity keeper. Quest pulls at life’s bitter scars while urgently cauterizing wounds with the sweet ointment of laughter. The beat of the film is hard hitting with a threatening pace. Rizzo proved both clever and blameless as he directs viewers through the complex sub urban milieu.  Cityscapes and tender moments are rhythmically interwoven into Rizzo’s battle cry as skillfully as a Sade’ song. Tim Moellering, played by Dash Mihok, proves a solider of love by moving the boundary markers between parent and teacher.

Did Someone Hurt You?

One of the most affecting moments, jolting the heart, is when Mills (Greg Kasyan) asks Moellering, “did someone hurt you?” His reply helps us to appreciate there is more than one way to hurt a child. Abandonment and addiction personally pre-enrolled me into the School of Hard Knocks. My earliest memories are living in group home facility for infants and toddlers. Not soon thereafter kinship/foster care placements before settling in the wealthy enclave of Marin County. Abuse, power, privilege and passion are personified through the Berkeley Unified School district and the juvenile justice system. The audience became witnesses to the process of false reasoning behind some authority figures’ gut punching indecisions. The ramifications of psychological/emotional, verbal abuse and neglect does not discriminate based on class, social standing and or socio- economic status. What may Santiago Rizzo teach us? That a student’s best gift to his mentor is effort.

Simply Put Quest Is A Conversation Starter…

Quest deserves wide release so that parents, professors/teacher and caregivers alike may watch and discuss this film in the privacy of their own homes, cafeteria screenings and coming of age slumber parties. End domestic violence and crimes against children by refusing to keep silent.

Hollywood must have the courage to allow Quest to reach the masses so we may pause, rewind and press play- over and over again until every tear is wiped from our eyes and pain and outcry are no more. The power of a kind word spoken at the right time is evident in this twenty first century masterpiece. A teary-eyed full Napa Valley Opera House, above the Blue Note at the Historic Margit Moldavi Theater, audience rose to their feet in a triumph of tearful applause.

Thus, encouraging special guest actor Robert Iturriaga on stage for Director’s Q&A session where Rizzo briefly closed his eyes and spoke of mankind’s spiritual need – a revolution of core knowledge in advocacy for youth and young adults.

Quest successfully embarks on a mission of changing the status quo in Hollywood as it swept audience and jury awards for Favorite Actor; Favorite Feature and Best Lounge Feature. This is newcomer Greg Kasyan’s second win in this category.


“Had many audience members sobbing cathartically by film’s end… Gregory Kasyan, plays 12-year-old Rizzo — “Mills” in the film — with an adept, brutally-honest hand that belies his age and leaves you with the distinct impression that you are watching one of our future greats in action...
It’s an assured debut feature that doesn’t pull any punches; you leave the theater transformed...
Rizzo — who screens the film at juvenile detention centers around the country — is the first to point out that some audiences can and will find the film’s subject matter challenging. “We are in a revolution of the evolution of consciousness... But if we are to evolve, our shadows have to come to light.”
MovieMaker Magazine


"Quest should be on everyone's awards radar.”
— Andrea Chase/Killer Movie Reviews


“Quest is an undiscovered gem… in the same way Forrest Gump defined a generation, it will leave an imprint on your soul in the way audiences have not seen since the quiet truths revealed in the Shawshank Redemption…

Quest deserves wide release so that parents, professors/teacher and caregivers alike may watch and discuss this film in the privacy of their own homes, cafeteria screenings and coming of age slumber parties… Hollywood must have the courage to allow Quest to reach the masses so we may pause, rewind, and press play - over and over again until every tear is wiped from our eyes and pain outcry are no more. The power of a kind word spoken at the right time is evident in this twenty first century masterpiece…”
Alicia Nichols, Emcee at Napa Valley Film Festival
(in “Members" section)


"A Modern day ‘The 400 Blows’… Powerful. Greg Kasyan — the Jean-Pierre Leaud to Rizzo’s Truffaud — won best actor at the Oldenburg Film Festival, Europe’s equivalent of Sundance. Ultimately, Inspiring.”
 — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle


“Quest is the kind of story that breaks us down so we can build ourselves up, better than before...
This is not a feel good movie. It is a get off your ass and change the world movie; not the whole world, all at once, like a superhero, but bit by bit, one compassionate word and generous act at a time. 
Go see it and bring everyone you know!

— endigomatolla
(IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw4188709/)


“This is more than Germany. People are nice but they don’t show their emotions so easily. This happened twice in the history of the festival.”
Torsten Neumann, Director of Oldenburg Film Festival, addressing the standing ovation.


“A powerful, tense, amazing performance by young Gregory Kasyan as Mills and a frightening, honest portrayal by Lou Diamond Phillips. Best film I've seen all year, and I spend my life studying and teaching film history and filmmaking. A24, pick up this film!!!.”
David Foulds 
(IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw4208327/)


“Quest is likely the Best movie I have ever seen. Real, real, real. Intense, engaging, and ultimately about love, the thing we all so desperately need. We can all learn from this movie, a must see!
— James Schraider
(IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw3834483/)


“It was the most talked about film of the Festival - I never heard any comments that did not praise Quest... Exceptional film you will remember.”
 Rich PM (IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw3855627/)


“'Quest' is one of the best movies I've ever seen. Go and watch it!”
— larsrandolph
(IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw3808839/)


“I’ve never seen a more perfect movie… I’ve never poured down crying like that, ever in my life. Not for a movie.”
Bentonville, Arkansas Audience Member
(testimonial video #2 on home page)


“I could have never prepared myself for such a beautifully executed movie...All I have to say is.... WOW. Watch it! But be prepared to cry and have your whole world change after watching it !”
 Julia Sirbu (IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw4010662/)


“It will leave you with all sorts of emotions and will move you in ways Hollywood has yet to.”
—@karolinastateofmind on @santi_rizzo Instagram


“This film should be shown in every school. It should be mandatory to every parent to see this.”
Cleveland Film Festival Audience Member C
(testimonial video #4 on home page)


“‘Quest’ is a film every teacher should see.”
Pamela Powell/Reel Honest Reviews


Saw this film last night and was absolutely blown away! It is equally hard to watch and a beautiful story I can’t wait to see again. Don’t miss it and come prepared… I want to be on the books that this will be The Indie film of the year… Of all the films I’ve ever seen, it’s in my top 5.”
Anne Stimac, President, A-Mac Placement
(Santiago Rizzo Facebook public wall)


"Brilliant acting ... and a standing ovation… Lou Diamond Phillips at his dramatic best… An inspiring story of hope… Santiago Rizzo is my hero.”
Richard Freedman, Vallejo Times-Herald


This movie is soul shifting!! We need to get this movie shared with everyone, but most especially with our young people.”
@reinspirate on @santi_rizzo Instagram


“Seriously, I’ve been talking about @questthemovie with my cast, crew, and friends since I left the screening. You are so brave and thoughtful on so many fronts and I really respect that… told Ava about it.”
Cierra Glaude, Ava Duvernay’s mentee, @sh00ter_ on Instagram


“Best movie I’ve seen all year.”
Katsitsionni Fox, Urbanworld Audience Member
(Santiago Rizzo Facebook public wall)


“The story of Santiago’s childhood inspired me to be more ‘vulnerable’ and this is something my ‘pride’ doesn’t really take it light. This movie is the definition of 'REALISTIC of Inspiration.'”
Junior B.T., 17 year old resident in an Arkansas Juvenile Detention Center
(letter posted in the “Members" section)


“Mind Blowing, heart wrenching, and soul filling… I can’t recommend it more highly.”
John Fike, teacher at Berkeley Unified School District
(Santiago Rizzo Facebook public wall).


“Quest was one of the BEST films I’ve ever seen… so powerful and so moving.”
-Mendocino Film Festival Audience Member D
(testimonial video #3 on home page)


“Realized why Hollywood isn’t listening. The rules are simple, not heroic. Anyone can follow them. They work. Your film, Tim’s film is one I’ll never forget.”
Chris Aigner, Cleveland Audience Member
(Santiago Rizzo Facebook public wall)


"It touched something in my heart. It reminded me of God’s Love for us… It was so good. OMG… I can’t stop thinking about it… It impacted me so much.”
-Cleveland Audience Member D
(testimonial video #4 on home page)

“It’s so moving that I can’t even speak. It’s going to take me a while to even make any comments on this movie. That’s my reaction. Truthfully.”
-Cleveland Audience Member A
(testimonial video #4 on home page)


“Resonates to much in Cleveland… you are sharing a revolutionary message… resilient unfailing LOVEEEEE.”
@gem2forest_city on @santi_rizzo Instagram


"The kids are still talking about Quest. Just had a meeting with one of our therapists and he said it had a phenomenal impact on the residents he is seeing.
— Jonathan Pickering, Administrator of White River Juvenile Detention Center, Arkansas
 (email posted in "Members" section)


“I used to be in the streets. I used to do all that stuff. But now that I’m here, that movie made me realize that I need to change my ways of what I’m doing.”
Resident in Cleveland Juvenile Detention Center
(testimonial video #5 on home page, 2nd resident)


“Words can not adequately express the awful beauty of this movie... Hit me like American History X... must see!”
Stephanie Comstock
(IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw4154780/)


A 5 star film that needs to be seen by Everyone... God is in control of everything. When God says yes… he makes a way out of no way.”
Gloria Wadud, Probation Officer at Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center
(email posted in “Members" section)


“It was one of the most moving movies I’ve ever seen. It was so powerful and I told everybody to go see it and everybody who has seen it has come back to me and told me the same exact thing. Quest is a movie that must be seen by EVERYBODY.”
-Mendocino Audience Member
 (testimonial video #3 on home page)


“It was brilliant!!”
— Esa Krause, Asst Chief Probation Officer, Alameda County Juvenile Probation Department
(Santiago Rizzo Facebook public wall)


“'Trust Your Struggle'... it really touched my heart and made me cry. I would like to buy your movie and recommend to my family and friends. They would love it very much. It's very inspirational and loving."
Resident at Chicago Juvenile Detention Center
(letter in "Member" section)


I’m a retired preacher… Pay It Forward was a very moving film, but I think this one was even more authentic, more real. More nitty gritty. More real life. And I understood a lot more through this film about graffiti and about kids that act out… I think you can bring whatever is in your background or heart to the film. I think it’s a universal film.
— Cleveland Audience Member 
(testimonial video #6 on home page)


“Honestly one of the best things I’ve seen. Still thinking about it 24 hrs. later. I’ll carry it with me into my classroom each day.”
Cleveland Audience Member/Teacher 
(@clarkey865 on @santi_rizzo Instagram)


“Your film made my wife go to tears. She can hardly speak. She was so moved. Very moving.”
-Cleveland Audience Member B
(testimonial video #4 on home page)


“I was wrenched with tears from the start of the movie until the very end, and even afterwards. It was emotionally deep and touching. Beautiful.”
-Mendocino Audience Member A 
(testimonial video #3 on home page)


“Was hard for me to watch. I was just with that big apple in my throat the whole time. Very very moving. Very real.”
-Mendocino Audience Member B 
(testimonial video #3 on home page)


“Quest is the Best... If there’s one film you should see at Slamdance/Sundance... check out this gem.”
Kevin Kunze
(IMDb Review: https://www.imdb.com/review/rw4049306/)


Saw one of the best films I have ever experienced last night and even had the opportunity to shake the phenomenal directors hand and get a hug. Quest was awesome and gave me a new insight on life and overcoming struggle! Thank you @santi_rizzo for this amazing film.”
Audience Member at Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, FL 
(@dbperez54 on Instagram)


“Couldn’t have loved it more… cried from start to finish… it’s amazing everyone needs to see it.”
Nicole Vasquez Henry, Mill Valley Film Festival
(Santiago Rizzo Facebook public wall)


“Incredibly Powerful! I can’t quite put it into words right now because it’s so fresh.”
-Cleveland Audience Member A
(testimonial video #1 on home page)


“Not only powerful but extremely important. In a world full of ego, we need to embrace humility.”
 @Arashdemaxi on @santi_rizzo Instagram


The movie Quest brought tears to my eyes… only love can heal… Thank you so much for sharing your truth with the world through this touching film.”
@lasonrisade_ale on @santi_rizzo Instagram


“I was absolutely blown away by this movie… Words just can’t do this movie justice. My favorite movie in the world. Please go watch it!”
—@Pizzathatscold14 on @santi_rizzo Instagram


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