“Off and Running” is lesbian filmmaker Nicole Opper’s remarkable documentary about Avery Kline-Cloud, the adopted African-American teenage daughter of two mothers who also have two adopted sons, one Hispanic, the other Asian. As she starts to think about college, Avery ponders whether to try to contact her birth mother. It’s a decision that sets a painful chain of events in motion.
Lyrically made, Nicole Opper’s film addresses universal questions –– “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?” –– with remarkable intelligence, sensitivity, and grace. Avery is an incredibly self-possessed teen, and her heartfelt story becomes painful to watch as her decisions and actions have significant consequences.
Opper spoke on the phone from her home in New York about “Off and Running” and its subject, Avery, whom she has known for ten years. Opper met Avery when the filmmaker was a student at NYU and interested in interviewing students at the Jewish school Avery attended.
Director, subject chronicle a lesbian family adoptee’s search for her roots
“She was nine, and had her hand up first to volunteer,” Opper recalled. “I proposed a film class at the school, and Avery was a student in that class.”
Their collaboration on “Off and Running” began a few years later.
“When Avery turned 16, I could tell there was something profound happening with her — that she was going through serious changes and having a rough time,” Opper said. “I became curious about what was going on, and that curiosity stemmed from my investment in her family with two lesbian moms. I am a young lesbian who wants to adopt and have a family myself. I started asking Avery questions and it organically blossomed into this film.”
“Off and Running” chronicles Avery questioning what it means to be black — having grown up in a white, Jewish world where she never felt she fit in. Avery’s epiphany comes when she realizes that you are in control of who you become, a powerful message that will resonate with anyone who sees this wonderful film.
Opper originally had what she called “an optimistic, maybe naïve vision” of how Avery’s coming-of-age tale would unfold. She explained how that vision changed.
“I saw this strong, interracial family with lesbian moms, but it was a discovery for me to see how deep these issues of race were going to influence the story,” the filmmaker explained. “Religious identity plays a role, but it was never a conflict for Avery. Nor were her parent’s sexual identity. Race was key, it trumped all, and I wasn’t prepared for that.”
The filmmaker believes Avery’s story has broad appeal because it shows a search for identity and individuality that is commonplace among teenagers and adults of any race, class, or sexual orientation. As Avery becomes troubled by issues surrounding her birth mother, she begins to break away from her lesbian mothers, skip school, and fail in track — her area of achievement.
One of the film’s most powerful sequences has Avery missing her moms’ marriage ceremony in Canada.
“That wedding scene broke my heart,” Opper admitted. “We thought Avery would go. I considered not going myself. Her family is so much a part of her story. She is so defined by them. I felt having a scene in which Avery was absent was going to feel her absence, this imbalance. That became a question of where is she present if she’s not physically present in the scene.”
Halfway through filming, Avery disappeared for a several months. When she resurfaced, Opper let her into the edit room and explained that she could not tell Avery’s story without her. The filmmaker gave Avery the task of writing her own narration and asked that she offer feedback as the film was made.
“We worked hard to decipher what was going on in her head, and give it context and understanding,” Opper said. “Avery was in charge of all of that. She would write, and we were editing together.”
The collaborative nature of the project is what makes it so personal and gripping.
The filmmaker sees “Off and Running” as something that could be shown in schools as a “support tool” for teenagers.
“Avery was grappling with issues universal to teens in America today, and also issues very specific to her experience as a trans-racial adoptee,” Opper said. “We showed rough cuts to teenagers and, by and large, people were identifying with Avery — kids who on the surface had nothing in common with her except age.”
Opper said her own journey to her identity as a lesbian was a connection point with Avery.
“I have always had a desire to tell stories before I was aware of my own sexuality,” she said. “Being on the periphery creates a commitment to connecting with other people who share in that experience and to give voice to their stories.”
While reticent in generalizing about same-sex parents, the filmmaker said, “The interesting thing about queer parents and families is that there is often a greater openness to embracing people outside of your own experience.”
Opper said she learned many things about herself working with Avery over the three years it took to complete the film.
“I discovered my patience,” she said. “And I learned how important it is to resist making assumptions about what people are feeling or going through at that age. We think because we had this experience, we know this experience. I don’t think anyone can understand how complicated this was for Avery or how abandoned she felt. This was a tightly knit family and she still felt abandoned, and I think she had every right to. She was longing for this connection [with her birth mother]. So many of us take this for granted. I tried to honor that.”
“Off and Running” poignantly and perceptively chronicles Avery’s quest and her family’s resiliency. It is an inspiring, and deeply moving portrait.
OFF AND RUNNING
Directed by Nicole Opper
First Run Features
Opening Jan. 29
323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.