Off and Running is an American coming-of-age story. But it is one shaped by the new realities of an increasingly diverse American population, especially as those realities affect family life. Brooklyn teen Avery Klein-Cloud is the African-American adoptive daughter of white Jewish lesbians. Her siblings, also adopted, are an older black and Puerto Rican boy and a young Korean-American boy. Avery has grown up loved, supported and happy. Off and Running opens with the popular high school track star in her junior year, looking forward to college and a successful life.
But the outside world, with its deep concerns about race and identity, begins to intrude upon this happy family. Avery’s upbringing in a Jewish household and her distance from black culture were not issues for her during childhood, but as she approaches adulthood, she grows more troubled by her ignorance of her own roots. With the support of her parents, she decides to learn about her past by writing to her birth mother. The result is a crisis whose depth takes Avery, her parents and the filmmakers by surprise — a crisis that threatens to sweep away the teen’s promising future.
As a little girl, Avery was the only black child in Hebrew school. In high school, her black friends, including her boyfriend, also a track star, often tease her about how little she knows about African- American culture. It’s all in good fun and Avery, in turn, likes to tell her friends about Jewish culture and her family’s diversity. But at some point during her junior year, Avery’s distance from black life begins to eat at her. Her parents, Tova and Travis, support her efforts to contact her birth mother through the agency that handled her adoption, though they caution her that she may not get the answer she wants — or any answer at all. After three anxious months, a reply comes from Avery’s birth mother, Kay, in Austin, Texas. It’s a kind enough letter that asks for Avery’s forgiveness for giving her up and informs her that she has three brothers, a sister and a nephew. There is no indication, however, that Kay wants a relationship with Avery.
The effect on Avery is intense. The lack of connection she has always felt around other African-American culture becomes an issue of paramount importance. The question "Who am I and where did I come from?" obsesses her. Avery has numerous conversations with Tova and Travis about her doubts and questions. But no amount of love and understanding seems to help Avery or ease her turmoil. In fact, tensions in the household, and Avery’s anger, only increase. For Avery, "growing into my own person" means creating a complementary black identity. She begins to remodel herself with a new hairstyle, interests and circle of friends, but she sees no role for Tova and Travis in this effort.
The family member she remains closest to is her older brother, Rafi. As a mixed-race adoptee, he can understand and sympathize with Avery’s dilemmas and questions. Yet Rafi provides a dramatic counterpoint to Avery’s turmoil — and disproves the idea that cross-racial adoptees inevitably face identity crises. Rafi doesn’t share Avery’s angst. His birth mother, a crack addict, left his biological younger brother brain-damaged, and Rafi feels unambiguously lucky and grateful for the life he has been given by Tova and Travis. In fact, he wants to become a neurosurgeon so he can put his good fortune to work helping people like his brain-damaged brother.
Despite these differences, Rafi is Avery’s chief — and sometimes only — emotional support in the family. And when he leaves for college, Avery feels more alienated and confused than ever, and Off and Running takes a drastic turn. To the distress of Tova and Travis, Avery stops coming home. She stays at friends’ houses, begins skipping school and track practice and even misses her parents’ wedding in Massachusetts. In a very short time, this highly promising teenager has entered a downward spiral that seems poised to take away her future.
Only Avery’s boyfriend, Prince, is confident that she will regain her balance and the disciplined sports focus they previously shared. As dramatically chronicled in Off and Running, a changed and wiser Avery does ultimately rally to graduate, win a bronze medal at the state track championships and earn a scholarship to college in Delaware. She also realizes, in a roundabout way that no one could have predicted, that Tova and Travis — for all that they could not tell her about her African-American roots — nonetheless have given her the strength, determination and independence to meet her identity crisis and become, indeed, her own person.
"I wasn’t prepared for the complete meltdown that Avery had halfway through our filming together," says director Opper. "But we made a pact. We had started this project together and we would finish it together. I began inviting her over to watch and respond to the scenes as we were cutting them. This was her story, and it was important that she feel ownership of the process."
Off and Running is a co-production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) association with American Documentary | POV and the Diverse Voices Project, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It is a selected project of Tribeca All Access, with support from the Foundation for Jewish Culture and the National Black Programming Consortium.