A few mainstream movies lately have focused on kids searching for birth parents (The Kids Are All Right, Mother and Child). If you’d like to see a decidedly non-Hollywoodized treatment of that issue, it’s worth a trip to the Ann Arbor downtown library branch on April 19 to see a unique documentary, Off and Running, which got almost no attention on its release in 2009.
The film centers on a Brooklyn teenager named Avery Klein-Cloud, a black child adopted shortly after her birth by a white Jewish couple. Just as in The Kids Are All Right, the parents are a lesbian couple–Travis Cloud, an American Jew, and Israeli-born Tova Klein. Tova had already adopted a boy, Rafael, a year older than Avery, whose parents were Puerto Rican and black, and the two women later adopted a young Korean boy. As Avery narrates early on, “Our family nickname is ‘The United Nations.’ “
At the beginning of the movie, Avery is seen writing her first letter to her birth mother. Rafael, who is her closest confidante, doesn’t feel a need to make such a connection–although it’s later revealed he knows his natural brother and occasionally sees him.
Avery was the only black child at her elementary school, and as she explains, she at first doesn’t feel comfortable around black people–she identified herself as white and Jewish, because that’s how her parents raised her and her brothers. But that seems to be changing in her mostly black high school. Avery has a black boyfriend, Prince, and most of her other friends are black. She gets her hair braided and dreadlocked and tries to learn more about black culture. But when her birth mother does not respond to her overtures, she has a severe identity crisis.
Her adoptive mothers apparently feel wounded by her quest, though they mask their anger with a lot of psychobabble. (It would be helpful to know what their jobs are, but the film doesn’t show us. They talk about their emotions and their daughter like psychologists: “She’s making the whole thing so difficult for herself,” Tova says.)
Avery is a champion-caliber track star, and shots of her competitions sprinkle the film. Even after she runs away from home and school, her life still is chronicled. This leaves you to wonder how this film was made and whether some of the scenes are re-created. It’s helpful to know that the director, Nicole Opper, was Avery’s film teacher and mentor since Avery was ten, and that the focus of their joint project was not planned in advance. Still, some scenes seem too convenient to be entirely believable. But this is not Hollywood–it’s not trafficking in false hopes and easy, reassuring endings. If you’re adopted or an adoptive parent, it might ring true for you.