A tale of a thoroughly 21st-century coming-of-age.
Dir. Nicole Opper, 2010, 76 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
My birthday present to myself yesterday was to skip the Doc of the Day. But now it’s back to the grind! Not that this is a “grind,” mind you. If it weren’t for this experiment, who knows how many great documentaries I’d have never seen. Like, for instance, this one.
Avery Klein-Cloud is a thoroughly 21st-century child. Not because of how her social life is structured, or how her brain works, but because of her family situation, which probably couldn’t have existed until recent history. She’s the adopted black daughter of two white Jewish lesbians, with a mixed-race and Asian brother, both also adopted. How does such an environment shape one’s identity? That’s the question at the heart of Off and Running.
Avery is, all things considered, a normal, well-adjusted teenager. She does well in school, excels at track running (the namesake of the film), has a nice circle of friends, and has a tight, loving family. But the hormonal tumult of adolescence has caused long-simmering anxieties to become a bit of an identity crisis. As a black person who’s never “felt” black, she seeks to connect with her roots by contacting her biological mother. The documentary follows the fallout from this act, and how Avery struggles to figure out herself with adulthood impending.
This isn’t a Kids Are All Right-type story. The communication between Avery and her birth mother is actually quite minimal. What’s more important is how her quest for a stable identity creates a domino effect in all other aspects of her life. There aren’t any easy answers here, and some of the places Avery goes are quite upsetting. She starts skipping school, her track performance suffers, and it culminates in a really dark scenario that seems too bad to be true at first, but which seems like the logical end point of her behavior in retrospect. It’s also thematically and symbolically perfect in the kind of way that a documentary filmmaker would kill for.
If Off and Running were a “normal” movie, it’d probably be considered a routine indie. But it’s not, and that’s part of what’s so great about it. In cases where truth isn’t stranger than fiction, it’s often just plain better. Critics often toss about the phrase “well-observed” or some variation in praising slice-of-life movies. We judge them based on how well they capture what reality feels like. Sometimes, I just feel like cutting straight to reality*, and movies like Off and Running are perfect for that.
*Reality creatively arranged, of course.