“I’m pretty sure that you had a good reason to give me up for adoption, but if you don’t have one, that is okay with me too.” Writing a letter to her never-seen birth mother, Avery Klein-Cloud is at once hopeful and apprehensive in the kitchen of her Park Slope, Brooklyn home. As she points out, making the effort sets in motion a series of causes and effects, the upshot being, “I might be turned down, I might not get a letter back.” That is, she might feel rejected — again.
Avery’s self- awareness shapes Off and Running. Following her experiences during her last year in high school, the documentary extracts an “American Coming of Age Story,” as its subtitle suggests. As the first images of the film emphasize — a series of close-ups that show Avery lacing up her running shoes and zipping up her jacket — she is a track star, hoping for a scholarship to go to college. She’s also a young woman trying to sort out, as she writes to her birth mother, “who I am and where I come from.”
For Avery, this sense of background is increasingly convoluted. “P.S.,” she concludes her letter, “I forgot to tell you what my family is like, which is very important and delicate.” Adopted as a baby, she has been raised by her mother, Travis Klein-Cloud (who is “white,” Avery narrates, and “born in Illinois”) and her mother’s partner Tovah (“white, Jewish, born in Israel”), alongside two brothers, the slightly older Rafi and younger, Korean-born Zay-Zay. Over a series of short home videos showing smiling faces, Avery says their family nickname is “the United Nations.”
As Avery contemplates her future away from this very nurturing and supportive environment, she’s thinking through how she came to it. She’s wanted to write the letter to her birth mother for five years, she tells her family, and only now has taken the chance. “I feel Jewish because I was raised Jewish, I guess,” says Avery, as you see her singing with her family around a menorah. Still, she adds, “When people first see me, they don’t see me as Jewish.” This disjunction between identities — who she looks like and who she imagines she is — that inspires her effort to reach her birth mother. “When you’re adopted by a white family,” she says, “You see the world so differently. I’m not saying I’d want to see it any other way, but for so many years, I felt so out of place around black people. It was so weird.”
Still, she wonders about another “way” to see the world. She says her black friends, including her boyfriend and fellow track team member Prince, are teaching her about “black culture.” As the film too predictably shows her learning how to say “gangsta,” Avery offers a broader context. “They’re helping me out,” she says, “because they know that I have no idea.” It’s no coincidence that Avery conducts this search for self just as Rafi goes away to school. While the film shows shot after shot of the siblings as happy children posing for their parents’ camera, she confides that she misses him and Rafi takes up his own search (he wants to major in nuclear biology in order to discover why his birth brother suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome but he did not). Observing her struggles back home, Rafi notes “a big difference between me and my sister, because I feel that my identity is amorphous. She feels like she was born into something and I feel like I can create what I want to be.”
This question of who creates what out of identity and experience is at the center of Nicole Opper’s documentary. While Avery’s story is surely complicated in its own right, so is the film’s rendering of it. Consider that early scene in the kitchen, as Avery writes the letter to her birth mother. The camera then follows her to the mailbox, where she deposits the letter, pictured in low angle, her jaw set.
The sequence, accompanied by Avery reading from the letter she’s written, indicates her apprehension and, as she describes later, her “panic.” Here and elsewhere, the movie grants unusual access to Avery’s feelings, not only in the form of her voiceover, but also in dramatic images like this one, staged or reenacted. While it’s clear that any documentary project shapes the behavior, self-presentation, and self-understanding of its participants, this one underscores the relationship between film and story, the complex interactions between Avery and the camera.
The result is a “coming of age story” that is both too tidy and inexorably messy. On the one hand, the film observes Avery’s struggle as if on her own terms — watching her track team practices or interactions with friends from Hebrew class — the film also constructs that struggle in explanatory scenes, as when she visits with a trans-racial adoption counselor. “I’m beginning to identify with the African American side of me,” she says, “And they don’t really seem to fit into that part of my life.”
On another hand, the movie asks worthy questions about how they fit and how she fits. Its format raises more unsettling questions about what it means to fit, how the ideal of fitting can be made into formula or fantasy. Such overt design — the soul-searching for the camera and the staging of scenes — differentiates Off and Running from other documentaries, more conventionally observational and less plainly staged. But it’s a difference that raises other, also worthy questions about how documentaries tell stories, how they fit expectations and how those expectations are formed.