Off and Running

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  Off and Running
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Avery Klein-Cloud is a well-adjusted African American girl living in an unconventional environment. Her loving and nurturing white Jewish lesbian mothers, Travis and Tova, also adopted two other children, mixed race Rafi and Korean Zay-Zay. Avery is encouraged by her adoptive moms to write to her birth mother but this begins a search for her own identity and race, while trying to earn a college scholarship, in “Off and Running.”

Talk about an unusual upbringing – Avery, an African-American baby, was adopted by Travis, who would later meet and become partners with Tova. She, before they got together, adopted multi-racial Rafi. The couple rounded out their eclectic family when they adopted Korean-born Samuel Isaiah, or Zay-Zay. Things are in harmony in the multi-racial, multi-ethnic household until Avery’s moms convince her to contact her birth parents through the adoption agency.

“Off and Running” takes off in unexpected directions when Avery receives a letter from her birth mother and the young athlete – she is a recognized high school track star - begins to question her identity as a black person. This becomes a search for self as Avery struggles with her family loyalties and her own identity.

First time feature length documentary maker Nicole Opper brings us a coming of age film as Avery, finding herself, begins to grow distant from her adoptive family. She begins to have trouble at school, skips classes and endangers her chances for an athletic scholarship. However, her moms raised her well and Avery changes her life around. Opper follows the young woman and brings us into her life, garnering sympathy and hope for Avery. “Off and Running” is a personal and insightful character study and I give it a B-.

Avery Klein-Cloud is a Black champion track runner from a Brooklyn high school.  She's also the adopted daughter of two white Jewish lesbian mothers with an older, adopted Latino brother Rafi and much younger adopted Korean brother Zay-Zay.  At a time of life when teenagers must begin to make plans for the future and adulthood, though, Avery decides to look back by finally mailing the letter to her birth mother which she'd long thought about sending in Nicole Opper's documentary "Off and Running."

This documentary not only provides a look at a most unique and diverse family, but provides a subtext of environment vs. heredity.  Avery, who discovers her 'real' name is Mycole Antwonisha, was born a crack baby, but has been raised to be a very eloquent, high achieving teenager.  While some scenes feel a little staged, like some conversations between Avery and Rafi with pretty heavy subjects, they seem so natural in front of Opper's camera and one cannot help but respect these intelligent and thoughtful young kids.

Things change, though, once Avery begins digging into her birth family.  Return letters from her mother are loving, but one cannot help but wonder why Avery was given up when she has both older and younger siblings. No requests to meet are forthcoming.  Avery's mom writes that she will be telling her siblings about their hitherto unknown sister that weekend.  And then...nothing.  This seem to make Avery go into a tailspin.  In claiming to to be trying to connect with her Black heritage (the sixteen year-old says she cannot relate at all and has always felt 'white'), she moves out of Travis and Tova's home, much to their heartbreak, and into the home of her boyfriend.  She begins to suffer academically.  Her behavior becomes more cold-hearted as is most strongly evidenced by her missing the legal marriage of her adoptive parents across the border in Canada.  Then she experiences the type of life changing event that turns her into a statistic.

Opper, who has known her subject for years, does a great job keeping visual interest with a mix of observational, direct camera address and historical footage.  Once Avery leaves home, Opper splits the story into two strands - what's going on with Avery, but also what is happening with Travis and Tova.  The couple could warrant their own documentary and their reactions, though different, enlighten us as to why Avery turned out the way she did. Opper sticks around long enough to give us a happy ending, but oddly, she never tracks back to Avery's birth mom nor do we find out the outcome of that really important challenge Avery had to face.  Still, with so many dysfunctional families on display in documentary after documentary, "Off and Running" is a breath of fresh air with its unconventional but uplifting 'United Nations' household.

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