Off and Running
Considering the number of children in need of adoption—and the number of children who are actually adopted each year—it's surprising there aren't more adoption stories being told. Aside from The Locator, we've had especially limited access to stories about adopted children reaching out to their birth parents. The delicate, vulnerable position of someone sending a letter out into the world, waiting and hoping to hear back about where they come from, is still a bit of a mystery, and more than worthwhile. In fact, I knew little about it until my own adopted mother finally reached out to her birth parents at age fifty-six.
Not only is that seminal search a matter of discovering identity for the adoptee; it is, potentially, a matter of deep-seated tension between the child and her adoptive parents. My mother actually waited until both of my grandparents had passed before seeking her own answers, to avoid the risk of hurting them.
Nicole Opper's Off and Running provides a candid, thoughtful portrait of such a situation in all its complexities. The documentary follows Avery Klein-Cloud, a charismatic star high school athlete from Brooklyn, who attempts to continue living the life she and her adoptive parents carved out for her while waiting on correspondence from her birth mother. The fact that Avery is trans-racially adopted—the African American daughter to two White Jewish mothers—makes her quest for identity that much more significant.
At the beginning of the film, Avery frankly admits her persistent discomfort in Black social spheres growing up, and later, when a counselor asks, “Do you feel Black?,” Avery says she doesn't know what that means. Her brother Rafi, also adopted but of mixed race, provides an interesting contrast; not only does he seem to have little interest in contacting his birth parents, but he seems entirely unconcerned with his origins. At the very least, he doesn't seem as dependent on where he came from for a sense of self.
Still, Avery's bravery in her search for answers is admirable, and considering how obviously torn she is about her particular situation, she is incredibly forthcoming and self-aware. We get an unexpected amount of access to her private thoughts and feelings about what she's going through, often things that she doesn't even share with her mothers. But as the tension in the Klein-Cloud household escalates, Opper seems to pull back and even gloss over certain pivotal incidents, like a falling out between Avery and her parents that results in her moving out for a period. Opper barely addresses an abortion Avery decides to get when an unwanted pregnancy threatens to impede her track career. In fact, this part of the story is so glossed over that I wasn't entirely sure that it happened.
In the end, Avery's coming of age—and to terms with the fact that she may never meet her birth mother—feels undeserved though still inspiring. Perhaps the fact that Opper has a personal relationship with the family (she was one of Avery's teachers in middle school) can account for her trepidation in handling such sensitive issues. But her reluctance does take away from the moral lesson of the film: that adopted children need to stand by those who've cared for them and showed them support every step of the way, which, in this case, is Avery's unconventional but extraordinary family.