Sitting in a cool and airy church that was more like a barn, in late July in Pacific Grove California, I was surrounded by adult transracial adoptees as we viewed the movie, Off and Running. The film is a documentary about the life of fellow transracial adoptee, Avery Klein-Cloud, who is black, and her transracial family.
The documentary has recently been shown on PBS as part of their series on transracial adoption and centers on Avery’s struggle as a teen with her racial identity. Avery also struggles with trying to figure out who she really is as a person.
Avery was raised in Brooklyn, New York, by two white Jewish mothers, and her family also includes her older biracial brother Samuel, and younger Korean brother, Isaiah.
During the film we learn of Avery’s compelling desire to find her birth mother. As Avery responds to connecting with her birth mother then being rejected by her birth mother, we get to see the affect this has, not only on her, but also on the family. The mothers and even her older brother really struggle with trying to understand why this is so important to Avery.
As a parent, I understood and yet was disappointed in the responses from her mothers. They responded with frustration when Avery tried over and over again to connect with herbirth mother, who it obviously didn’t want to connect with Avery. It is tough as a parent to see your child hurting, know the source of the pain, and then watch your child continue to run back to that source to only be subjected to more pain. In the mothers’ pain they responded in a way that Avery saw as less than encouraging and this begins the unraveling of their family.
The ribbons of Avery’s teenage life quickly pull apart and soon she is no longer living at home, has dropped out of high school, and her promising track career appears to be circling the drain with everything else.
Her new black friends provide comfort and acceptance to Avery who is trying to find who she is and where she belongs. Although Avery grew up in a diverse city, her all black high school provides her with her first experience being around other black children. She manages to find a group of black teenagers who accept her for who she is and welcome her into their black family.
Her interactions with her black friends are very familiar to me. The way they talk openly about Avery’s unusual background and joke about. The way she was so appreciative to find a group that was so willing to bring her in and teach her about being a black teenager. It was like I was watching my own experience on the screen. She finds calm, relaxed acceptance and that is such a comfortable place to just sit in and breathe.
By the film’s end, the ribbons that unraveled are tied up neatly into a bow and the film gives promise that after Avery lost her way, she regains her balance and is back on track.
When the movie ended and I sat in the breezy church in the dark as someone fumbled for the lights, I thought it was great to see a positive movie about transracial adoption. I was excited that the film also showed the possible struggles that could result from growing up in a transracial family.
When the lights came on, we all moved in to a circle to discuss our reactions to the movie. This type of scenario is intimidating for me because rarely do I see the deeper meaning in film. My wife and I can go see a film and afterward she will bring up these deep concepts that sailed two to three stories over my head. I guess that is why I love great action movies; no deep concepts, just explosions and carnage.
As we sat in the circle different transracial adoptees voiced what they saw. The idea that the movie ended too perfect was mentioned. The idea that Avery was portrayed as the rebellious adoptee who created her own problems and only when she conformed to what her moms wanted did her life turn around was presented. The thought that Samuel, the obedient adoptee, was seen as having a charmed life soon followed. The summation that adoptees who question things are headed for trouble, and adoptees who flow with the system set up will get much further, rang loudly in many ears. I sat quietly, because nothing was ringing in my ears, after all there were no explosions, or car chases that I could analyze.
The inability of the moms to objectively discuss and support Avery in her search for her birth mother was also discussed. The selfishness of the moms that seemed to trump Avery’s need to know and the reoccurring theme that adoptees don’t matter also was mentioned.
As I walked back to my cabin, I realized my career in being a film critic was done. I also realized the things that I missed were worth discussing and thinking about and the input from adoptees is priceless. The lens with which adoptees view things is often ignored or worse never requested. It is in the different perspectives where we find invaluable ways to learn and how to do things differently.