|The film follows a year in the life of Avery Klein-Cloud, an adopted girl who is a star runner in high school.|
Off and Running
The slow progress of the long-distance runner
Every teenager wonders “Who am I?’’ Every teenager looks at his or her parents and says “Whoever I am, I’m not them.’’ Not every teenager faces the struggle for identity in such stark terms as Avery Klein-Cloud. An African-American born in Texas, Avery was adopted in infancy and raised by two white lesbians in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. She went to a Jewish day school. She’s one of the best high school cross-country runners in the United States. And as her junior year begins, she has no idea who on Earth she’s supposedto be.
Nicole Opper’s documentary “Off and Running’’ is a patient, slightly stiff, often intensely moving portrait of a girl who believes her choices are literally black and white. Desperate to define herself, Avery is seen early in the film writing to her birth mother and posting the letter in a state of cool panic. She receives a loving but noncommittal response followed by months of silence, and in that void, she starts to go a little nuts.
The polyglot family that has sustained her and made her who she is suddenly seems of no use. Her two moms, Travis (“Mama’’) and Tova (“Ima’’), are classic Park Slope yupper-middle-class progressive types: indulgent, concerned, articulate, helpless. Her older brother, Rafi, is off to Princeton, and his own contacts with his birth family, including a twin brother born with fetal alcohol syndrome, have set his course on medicine.
The siblings have been close, but now a gap yawns between them, or perhaps it’s the presence of Opper’s camera that renders their conversations oddly formal. (There’s a third adopted child, an adored Asian little brother named Zay-Zay; the three collectively refer to themselves as “the UN.’’) Avery doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere — not with her white, Jewish day school friends, and not with the African-American crowd at her public high school. “I’m very new to black culture, and I don’t really understand it,’’ she admits. On her Facebook page, she uses her birth name of Mycole Antwonisha, as if a seed rooted in binary code might flower.
“Off and Running’’ follows Avery at a distance over the course of a very long year, one in which the girl’s decisions go from bad to worse while remaining defiantly hers. The film approaches but doesn’t penetrate her new support group of African-American classmates; in general, the frictions of class and race particular to this unique Brooklyn neighborhood go unaddressed even when they’re directly mirrored in Avery herself. The keening of a string quartet on the soundtrack is sometimes intrusive, covering up all the areas where the director’s subject isn’t letting her in. One senses that Avery’s rebelling against the movie as much as her upbringing.
Yet her struggle for identity is heartbreaking, as is her slow progress toward reconciliation with the better parts of herself. Toward the end of “Off and Running,’’ Avery confesses to a therapist, “Do I feel black? I don’t know what that means.’’ She says it as a realization rather than a lament, and in her eyes you sense a gathering courage to make her own way, with whoever will come along.