by Farihah Zaman

Off and Running
Dir. Nicole Opper, U.S., First Run Features

Off and Running, the feature debut from documentary filmmaker Nicole Opper, jumps right into the existential crises of its heroine, Avery Klein-Cloud, dispensing with the introduction of background information before delving into conflict. Here, in the same breath that she tells us her name, Avery confesses with frank, articulate anxiety that she has decided to contact her birth mother for the first time, and proceeds to read to us from the letter she has agonized over for so long. The fifteen-year-old African American track star was adopted at a very young age by a lesbian couple who are raising her in Brooklyn with her likewise adopted brothers Rafi, a mixed-race child born of a substance-abusing mother, and Zay Zay, a much younger Korean boy. While the family is obviously close, there is an immediate sense that they are about to enter a period of great tension. The suddenness with which we are thrust into the action is refreshing, as is Opper’s refusal to milk the complex situation for emotional effect, but these instincts also underscore a persistent predilection to tell rather than show.

Opper’s primary success in Off and Running is her incredible access to Avery and her family, always an achievement in personal portrait documentary. The Klein-Clouds are all unexpectedly open on camera, always thoughtful and eloquent while discussing their thoughts and feelings. The director met Avery while teaching her in middle school, and it is very clear that she built a strong relationship with the girl over the course of several years before conceiving of the film (Avery participated fully, sharing a screenwriting credit with Opper). In a reality TV age, where many see a camera in the room as an opportunity to invent a more desirable, perfectly pigeonholed persona, Avery is quite the opposite, unafraid to share her fragmented sense of identity with disarming sincerity.

When her birth mother, Kay, begins responding to her letters, Avery’s internal tension only increases. She also feels a growing sense of angst about her complex racial identity, heightened by feeling first outwardly out of place at a Jewish school, then inwardly so when she moves to a predominantly African American school — there she still feels “white on the inside,” as her new friends gently tease. The situation worsens when the letters from Kay suddenly stop, and Avery goes into a self-destructive downward spiral. She stops attending school, doesn’t go home at night in favor of sleeping on friends’ couches, breaks off all contact with her family, and backslides in track. She fixates on the idea that finding her birth mother will help her know who she is. In an experience that is both typical to teenagers and yet also particular to the difficulties of her unique upbringing, Avery struggles to mitigate the seemingly incongruous facets of her identity; saying she has moved on from her family but clearly pained by their distance, she uses her birth name on Myspace and her adopted name in the real world.

There is more to value in Off and Running than just a good story and Nicole Opper’s social skills (which is not to say that these things should be undervalued). Although the production value is a little wanting and Opper lacks a distinct shooting style, the film is otherwise well assembled, with a quietly effective use of home videos and family photographs, and a tense yet lovely orchestral score. Also, the film straddles so many political issues — adoption, race, gay marriage, and more — yet resists the obvious temptation to centralize them, a refreshing change from more agenda-driven films. The filmmaker is dedicated to her subjects, and by so fully tracking Avery’s identity crises, allows larger thematic concerns to emerge organically from her narrative’s arc.

Even so, and despite her enviable access to this family, Opper inexplicably allows much of the real drama to happen off-screen, giving us after-the-fact accounts through numerous interviews when she could and should be letting us experience the interactions of the Klein-Clouds firsthand. The effect is something like reading a blog post about a fuller, more nuanced article; a summary of the thing, an analysis of the thing, a reaction to the thing, but not the thing itself. Avery insists that her mothers’ actions are “ripping the family apart,” that they are far more bothered by her connecting with her birth mother than they are willing to admit, but this is far from what the audience actually sees. Is her indignation towards her family a fair response to actions that we don’t witness, or simply a function of angst, regardless how justified? Off and Running never reconciles these absences, dampening just slightly what is otherwise a showcase for Opper’s considered, empathetic filmmaking.