Monday, January 25, 2010

Nicole Opper's OFF AND RUNNING covers adoption, track, color, class & sexuality

Documentarian Nicole Opper, shown below, explores so much (see headline above) in her new -- and very short (75-minute) -- movie OFF AND RUNNING that my reactions are split. I am grateful to have had the chance to meet this fascinating family: two white lesbian moms and their three adopted children -- the mixed-race Rafi (about to head for college); black Avery, just finishing high school and a budding track star; and their adorable little Korean brother, nicknamed Zay-Zay. But the final film seems to demand a longer, maybe more ragged but telling version: one that is not so cleaned-up and precise as what we have here.

Let's not do that "gift horse" thing: What we get is thought-provoking, entertaining and moving enough. Just knowing that such a family ex-
ists -- and that its parents are rai-
sing this fine group of kids -- is exhilarating and hopeful. Ms Opper gives us some (though not enough for me) background on and conver-
sations with her two moms, each with her own adopted child, who met and formed their own bond and then adopted a third child together.

When we enter this history, daughter Avery (below) is about to make her first effort to contact -- with some success -- her birth mother and will soon discover that her original name was Mycole Antoinysha. Though she excels at track, and is bright and popular,  "For years," she tells us, "I've felt out of place around black people." Her best friend at school, also of color, is an adoptee as well.

Off and Running is a very warm documentary. Its images, and especially its characters, are often beautiful; it's easy to love them all. And Ms Opper has chosen a number of telling moments to show us: Avery and brother Zay-Zay reciting a Hebrew prayer at bedtime, scenes between Avery and her boyfriend Prince, and especially the scene in which Rafi reads Avery a letter that he might send or say to his own birth mother, as a way of helping his sister with her situation. The effect here is heartbreaking but also intelligent and thoughtful. To say more would spoil some of the surprise in store.

So much happens in the course of Off and Running and yet I had more questions upon its conclusion than I did at its start, and I think this is because Ms Opper has opted for slickness and sanitization over reality. Not that anything in her film seems necessarily false but that too much of it comes off as arranged and very organized. There is clearly a lot going on once Avery connects with her birth mother, and she and her moms (shown above, center, and center right, and below in earlier days) allude to such trouble and tsuris occurring within the family. But we see none of it actually happening. In fact, much of what we do see in the documentary seems utterly tranquil; it is after the fact, when there has been time to consider what has happened and comment upon it, that we hear about anything negative. While the comments by all concerned are highly evolved and thoughtful, a bit of mess-in-the-moment might have made for a more balanced presentation. (It would also have entailed showing these characters in a sometimes less positive light -- which they would probably not have enjoyed.)

Does it sound like I am asking for another American Family situation like we got with the Louds some decades back? I wouldn't want that, either. So I'll be simply be grateful for what the movie gives us -- which is never less than riveting -- while realizing again how a good fictional account can fill in and expand a film's proceed-
ings to encompass the weirdness and the vagaries of "real life."

Off and Running opens -- via First Run Features -- this Friday, January 29, in New York City at the IFC Center.   You can find further playdates, theatres and cities here.

All photos are from the films itself (except that of Ms Opper) and come courtesy of  First Run Features.

No comments: