I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Questions of family, identity, and belonging run through Nicole Opper’s 2009 documentary Off and Running, which follows Avery Klein-Cloud’s attempts to find her own answers to them. Opper’s documentary brings us into Avery’s world through observational footage and voiceover, while interviews with friends and family expand on Avery’s life and observations.

“Our family nickname is the United Nations,” Avery jokes about her adoptive family. She grew up Jewish with two white mothers, Travis and Tova, and two siblings of different ethic backgrounds, Rafi and Zay-Zay. At the documentary’s opening, she is writing a letter to her birth mother in order to learn more about her biological family and, hopefully, herself. She receives one letter back about three months later, but after that nothing more arrives, sending her into a downward spiral that becomes an underlying theme throughout the film.

Identity outside the family is another question for her. In the voiceover Avery explains, “I’m very new to black culture, and I don’t understand it.” She learns about African-American culture through her friends and her boyfriend Prince, but she consistently feels out of place among them.

Even Avery’s success as a runner offers no cohesive identity, though she holds national titles and numerous awards with great potential for a college scholarship.

As the time since the only letter from her birth mother gets longer, Avery becomes more distant from school, running, and her family. She moves out the house, but she finds some comfort with Prince. Her mothers want to help her, but they recognize that their daughter needs some space. While the mothers’ relationship and insights could have been an interesting angle to develop further, Opper focuses on Avery.

After more than a year since the letter, Avery begins to regroup, get her GED and a running scholarship, and reunite with her adoptive family.

Opper’s documentary is intimate in its camera framing and access. DBR’s string-based score offers the right touch throughout. But despite Avery’s turnarounds, Opper’s documentary leaves many questions open and underdeveloped, which may be a reflection of the issues’ complexities.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.