This independent documentary by Nicole Opper was one of the top ten audience favorites at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, and won the Writers’ Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award and the Jury Award for the Best Documentary at both Outfest and the Philadelphia QFest.
Review by Liberty Hultberg
Off and Running is the narrative of a transracially adopted daughter of two Jewish lesbian moms in New York City, who begins searching for birth family. It’s one of the few artistic projects I’ve seen created by someone outside adoption that manages to show the underbelly of an adoptee’s experience—the grief and anguish of searching, and the struggle with identity that can happen when your skin and hair don’t match your parents’ or match the way you feel inside.
Avery is a rising high school track star hoping to get an athletic scholarship to college. She receives her non-identifying adoption information, makes contact with her biological mother, and then slowly her life begins going—quite literally—off track. She comes face to face with her expectations for a reunion with her mother, how meeting her mother may connect her to her roots and inform her identity. Suddenly the question of who am I? becomes very real. She explores her past, and how she’s always felt like one thing culturally and another thing racially, not fully realized as a Jewish person or a black person. As a transracial adoptee, I was pleased to see this explored because it so rarely gets attention. It gets to the matter of how the world sees people—especially women—according to their looks, and how an adoptee might feel when she can’t measure up to perceived societal expectations.
I found the documentary form effective for this story, because, unlike text narratives, it displays the omnipresence of race—viewers can see Avery’s physical difference within her family. They are constantly reminded of how she is seen, in the same way that Avery herself must be as she looks in the mirror and navigates the world.
One of the strengths of this film for me is the way it displays both the perspectives of the adoptee and the adopters, perspectives that are often examined in isolation of each other. (The biological mother’s voice is also present, though only through her letters.) Avery’s older adopted brother’s viewpoint, which is much different than Avery’s, was one of the most illuminating, because it gives a clue for why so often the voices in adoption are the voices of women. The film also explores, though to a much less degree, the challenges faced by a two-mom family.
I’ll be honest: at times I found the film difficult to watch. Perhaps because I knew what might happen as Avery went through these internal battles, because I have experienced them as well. I appreciate that it allows room for the myriad of emotions that resurface when searching for birth family, not just the one simple emotion adoptees are supposed to feel all the time (happy/grateful). The film does something artistically that I think makes it palatable, though, for any viewer. It balances the deeply emotional landscape with a more physical, concrete one. Interspersed throughout are clips from Avery’s track meets, which not only takes viewers to a physical place instead of an emotional one but gives a glimpse of her life outside home (which becomes increasingly important as the story continues). It reminds us, too, that adoptees’ lives are never solely defined by their adoption.
Off and Running does not shy away from these difficult issues of family and identity within our society, nor does it reach for a tidy ending, and for that most of all I offer praise. In the end viewers will likely come away inspired by the strength of a young woman but also with a true understanding of what a transracial adoption experience, in any family, always is: complicated.