What at first looks like a heartwarming portrait of a highly blended modern family turns into a no less engrossing illustration of that situation’s possible pitfalls in “Off and Running.” Nicole Opper’s documentary follows its teenage protag through tumultuous years during which her track star status, birth ethnicity and adoptive parentage all grow problematic. Stirring and accomplished pic has run the festival gamut already, looking to attract stellar reviews if modest theatrical biz as a First Run Features pickup, followed by DVD and broadcast exposure.
Given up by a black mother from Austin, Texas, whom she discovers had four other (presumably not abandoned) children, Avery is raised in Brooklyn by an observant Jewish lesbian couple — Midwesterner Travis and Israeli emigre Tovah — alongside fellow adoptees Rafi (a mixed-race older brother) and Samuel, aka Zay-Zay (a much younger Korean boy). When first interviewed at age 16, she proudly says her family is called “the United Nations.”
As the sole black girl in Hebrew school, later transferred to a high school sans any white students, she admits to feeling “very new to black culture, and I don’t fully understand it.” Her racial reidentification grows more and more potent, as contacting her birth mother (via adoption agency) proves initially positive, then very frustrating.
Avery responds with a classic if understandable case of adolescent angst and self-pity. She self-sabotages in various ways, her erstwhile confidant Rafi commenting (from his undergraduate spot at Princeton) that, “She feels like she was born into something. I feel like I can create who I want to be.”
His confidence is admirable — as her vulnerability is justifiable. There’s considerable relief when, after some major missteps, Avery seems to be getting back on track at the end.
Assembly is first-rate, particularly in the editorial and music departments. Intimacy of the footage captured is no doubt partly due to the fact that Opper has known the family for years, starting as Avery’s middle-school teacher, though this goes unmentioned onscreen.