The PBS show Point of View is showcasing three adoption themed documentaries for the first three Mondays in September. Last night they aired Off and Running by Nicole Opper. WOW—what a film!! I loved it.
The film follows Avery Klein-Cloud through her last years of high school. Avery, who is African American, was adopted as a baby by a white single mom, Travis Cloud. When Avery was a toddler, her mom met Tovah Klein who had an adopted biracial (black/Puerto Rican) son, Rafi, a year older than Avery. Travis and Tovah fell in love and move in together, eventually adopting a Korean boy, Zay-Zay. At the beginning, the film portrays a close loving family. The children are talented (Rafi is going to Princeton and Avery is a star track athlete) and involved with their moms and each other. The Klein-Clouds are observant Jews and are connected to their extended family and faith community. It’s a portrait of a wonderfully functional, if not typical, family.
Avery has recently switched from a mostly white school to an all black high school. At roughly the same time she initiates contact with her biological mother in Texas. Up until this point, her adoption has been totally closed with no contact and very little information about her birth family. She writes a letter to the adoption agency that facilitated the adoption asking for information. The agency sends some basic information, including the name her first mother gave her—Mycole Antwonisha. They agree to pass letters along to her biological mother.
Avery writes her birth mother saying among other things that she is trying to find out who she (Avery) is. Her birth mom writes back and says that she is the person her parents raised her to be. Thus starts one of the sub-themes of the movie—nature versus nurture. Avery clearly thinks she needs to understand her biological roots to understand who she is. Her birth mother and her brother, Rafi, think that the environment and your will determine more of who you are. Rafi says at one point, “I feel like I can create what I want to be. Avery feels like she was born into it.” Interestingly, Avery’s mothers seem to understand that our identity is a blend of many things, including our genes, our environment, and our temperament. (I must recommend a show we did on Nature vs. Nurture: Which Trumps in Parenting. I think it is one of our best.) When Avery says she want to contact her birth mother to help her discover her identity, Tovah replies, “You are my daughter, your grandparent’s grandchild, your brothers’ sister, and your biological parents child.”
After a few letters, the birth mother stops writing back. She said she had to tell her other children (3 older sons and a younger daughter) about Avery’s existence. Travis speculates that Avery’s letters demand too much deep emotional information too soon. She wisely counsels that Avery tone down her demands and focus on establishing a relationship. “You need to start with more trivial things, but the problem is, you don’t do trivial.”
It is at this point that Avery’s life begins to unravel and ultimately ends up with her running away and living apart from her family for most of her last year in high school. As her struggles, she causes intense pain to those who love her—her parents and her brothers. The filmmaker implies that Avery’s implosion is caused by the rejection she feels when her birth mother does not write back. Although I’m sure that is part of it, I suspect that much more is involved.
Avery is also coming to terms with being black. When a counselor at the end of the movie asks her if she feels black, she replies, “I don’t know what that means.” She makes African American friends who try to teach her what it means to be black in America. Avery decides that to be black means she has to reject her white family. “I am beginning to identify with the African American part of me, and my parents don’t fit into that part.” Although her new black friends tease her gently about being an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) they seem to accept who she is better than Avery does. The film captured beautifully the struggle of some transracial adoptees to find their racial identity. Avery says it well, “When you are raised by white parents, you see the world differently. You feel out of place around black people.”
This film raises so many interesting issues. It could be seen as a cautionary tale for transracial adoption. Here is one transracial adoptee that is clearly suffering. I know that plenty of adoptive parents will be trying to separate how they are raising their children from how the Klein-Cloud family raised their children. “I live in a more diverse neighborhood, my kids go to a racially diverse elementary school, etc.” As if we can inoculate ourselves and our children from the struggle by following an established script. As a transracial adoptive mom, I wish it were that easy. I think the established script helps. I think most important is having friends and associates of all races to expose our kids to role models of all races. But for all we know, the Klein-Clouds did this. I think that the reality is that some transracially adopted kids will just have to struggle to figure out their racial identity. Parental love and good intentions can’t protect our kids from all pain.
However, one of the things I loved best about this movie is that it clearly showed the diversity found amongst adoptees. One of my pet peeves is people making generic statement about all adoptees. I see this all the time, and so-called experts are often the worst offenders. “All transracially adopted kids will have confused racial identities.” “All adopted kids will want to search for their biological families.” “All adopted kids will have trouble as teens.” It drives me nuts. Avery and Rafi were both adopted transracially and were raised in the same family. Avery spins out of control; Rafi does not. Yes, Avery looks full African American, while Rafi is biracial, but I doubt that fact alone accounts for the difference. Adoptees, like all people, have different temperaments and different needs. No blanket statement can cover them all.
Off and Running also calls into question the practice of closed adoptions. My heart ached for Avery. Her desire for information about her biological parents is palpable. I know all too well, that open adoptions are not all perfect and birth parents can disappoint even in an open adoption, but at least an avenue is established for information to be available. Given Avery’s personality, that may not have been enough, but I couldn’t help but wonder if regular communication between Avery’s mothers, birth mother, and Avery could have eased some of Avery’s angst.
I loved that this was not a movie about lesbian parents. Avery deals with her parents’ sexual orientation in a matter-of-fact upfront way. When one of her new friends admitted that he was shocked at first, she teasingly tells him that he can take his butt out the front door if that’s going to be a problem. This is a story about a loving family in crisis—with emphasis on the word “family”-no descriptive adjective necessary. The sexual orientation of the parents is for the most part a non-issue.
I have two criticisms of this film. I was frustrated by the lack of exploration as to why a seemingly functional family fell apart so dramatically. The filmmaker does not challenge Avery’s statement that her relationship with her parents fell apart because they were hurt when she decided to contact her birth mother, although early scenes with her family contradict this assumption. I know from personal experience that parents can talk a good line and but still feel deeply uncomfortable (been there, done that, have the t-shirt to prove it), but it seems far more likely to my practiced parental eye that the real struggles between Avery and her parents were over Avery’s poor choices and desire for unfettered freedom. I think the film would be more nuanced and more realistic if some of this had been included.
My second criticism is more significant. How much did the film and presence of a film crew influence the trajectory of Avery’s life? The documentary depended on conflict and drama, and Avery provided plenty of both. I don’t doubt that her confusion and struggle was real, but was it exaggerated and possibly even egged on unconsciously by talking about it with the screen writer? Avery is credited as a co-writer with Opper of this documentary, so was likely intimately involved with developing the story. Did the needs of the story dictate her actions?
Also, where were the adults in this child’s life trying to provide guidance during this phase? Yes, sometimes parents can’t provide this guidance, but there were others in Avery’s life that could have stepped in, including Opper, who acknowledges in later interviews that she knew Avery for 10 years and was her mentor. Avery’s rebellion was not a minor one. She ran away and lived away from her family for more than half a year (the film did not say if she ever moved back home). She got pregnant and terminated the pregnancy. She stopped going to school. Although not explored in the film, I suspect she made other potentially destructive choices while without adult guidance and supervision. Where were her teachers, religious leaders, coaches?
Opper, a single young woman who hopes to adopt one day, said in a recent interview that young people need to be listened to without judgment and need the space to figure things out for themselves. Spoken like a true non parent. As a parent and as someone who has worked with adolescents for the last 15 years, I respectfully disagree. Teens need adults in their lives to guide them and sometimes even to protect them from themselves. We have lived longer and should have acquired more information on how to live. It is our obligation to try to share this information. Judgment is not necessarily a dirty word.
I strongly recommend that all parents, especially adoptive parents, watch this documentary. It is available online until Dec. 7. Hey, why not considering adding it to your film library by buying it for $25. If you have Netflix, you can watch it on your computer or on your TV thru your Wii for free through their instant streaming. Today, Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 2:00 Eastern time, Avery and Nicole Opper, will be participating in a live chat at the PBS site. You can participate today or read the transcript later.
Image credit: Steve Woolf