Off and Running
Off and Running is a very non-traditional coming-of-age story told in a way that deftly conveys one young woman’s unique situation as well as more universal themes. Filmmaker Nicole Opper was afforded intimate access to her subjects, which enabled her to invite the viewer to take a sensitive and warm perspective as the events unfold.
The film’s central subject, a high school track star named Avery Klein-Cloud, is honest and likable. Her story, though specifically about interracial and intercultural adoption, asks questions that many young adults often don’t dare ask aloud. Avery introduces us to her family of white Jewish lesbian mothers and adopted brothers from multi-racial backgrounds during the Jewish festival of Chanukah. At the start of the film, she speaks very matter-of-factly about her decision to attempt to contact her birth mother during her junior year of high school. The significance of this year will be clear to those who have attended school in the U.S.—this is the year that standardized tests and sports results can affect college choices and scholarship options— not a year to be taken lightly. Avery begins to feel the strain, yet perseveres in her quest to find out more about her biological family and reconcile this aspect of her identity with her, at first, seemingly incongruous upbringing.
Along the way, we get to know her adoptive mothers and adopted siblings who all share a similar ‘tell it like it is’ vibe when speaking about serious issues with warmth and humour. Avery meets her old friends from her Jewish elementary school in scenes that further contextualise her upbringing. Filmed chats with another adopted young woman of colour raised by Jewish parents are natural and open—inviting the viewer in and allowing us to experience something we might never have seen otherwise. We also see Avery training for and competing in track meets supported by her long-term boyfriend, and getting to know African American culture with a group of high school friends. She is truly a professional and takes her sport seriously.
What makes this story all the more poignant is that her desire for more contact with her birth mother thwarts her progress in athletics and is detrimental to her relationships within her family. Although there are unexpected developments in this story, Opper maintains a strong, real narrative that shows a complete picture of the desires and feelings on all sides in this family. Opper’s choice to conclude the story the following autumn during the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah is culturally and narratively satisfying.
I found myself empathizing with everyone, which is a testament to the director’s craft. Each of Avery’s brothers shares opinions about her quest, and though one brother is a Princeton freshman and the other is a second-grader, Opper affords them equal screen time in well-framed sequences. Avery’s mothers receive the same fair treatment, and disagreements on screen never feel voyeuristic or melodramatic. There are many television shows aiming for this level of intimacy and family drama. All pale in comparison to Off and Running. Opper has done a great service to this genre, allowing me to reinvest in it as an audience member.
The film looks good as well—kudos to director of photography Jacob Akira Okada and editor Cheree Dillon. Thankfully, there is no voice-over narration, or even excessive exposition: occasional captions show the passage of time. A sympathetic and unobtrusive soundtrack by Daniel Bernard Roumain gives the film even greater depth. Home movie footage and a few still photos provided by this very honest and dignified family round out the story visually.
Feminist? Yes. This is a true story about a young, Jewish, African-American woman who knows her own mind, stands by her decisions, and learns from her mistakes. Unusually, but very successfully, Avery Klein-Cloud co-wrote the film and has actively supported the production process. I’m sure others who see this original documentary will join me in routing for Avery’s and the film’s continued success.