The locating of one’s birth parents is stereotypically, if not always glibly, approached in film as a necessarily brutal process of self-exploration: It’s assumed, just as much as by more stringent psychologists as by the rules of documentarian tension, that adopted children need to discover and achieve closure on where they came from in order to properly mature. That having been said, while the nonfiction digicam feature Off and Running combines enough of the standard off-kilter family pay dirt to make one gag at the synopsis (Avery is an African-American, high school-aged runner who lives with her adopted Jewish-American lesbian parents in inner-city Brooklyn but dreams of reconnecting with her roots), director Nicole Opper never resorts to promoting reductive, campus counselor-esque values, instead allowing her multicultural human smorgasbord to speak as intelligently about its collective feelings as it can. And the majority of the captured monologues (particularly epistolary interludes between Avery and her birth mother, as well as interviews with Avery’s adopted moms and her eloquent, tri-racial adopted brother), which may comprise some of the most articulate in made-for-TV domestic-themed documentaries, seem designed to remind us that urban malaise and matriarchal strife affect the stalwartly self-aware along with the more ubiquitous common sense-less.
What’s evident by the film’s close as well is that Opper teases out the sapience from her subjects both to keep us interested in their uniqueness and to facilitate her meandering journey of a family portrait: Unlike the legions of lesser, similarly-themed documentaries, Off and Running eschews an emphasis on bio-parental confrontation to instead promote the importance of feeling one’s way through relationships as blindly as one gropes through the darkness of his or her own inchoate mind. The product is an occasionally irrelevant, often refreshingly less-than-studious study of filial disassociation not without its unfulfilling tangents (Avery’s skills as a runner are never fully investigated beyond their metaphorical potential beside Avery’s impatience and recalcitrant independence) or its conspicuously extemporaneous scenarios (one clumsily photographed scene involving a pregnancy test feels almost entirely choreographed) but that ultimately beats in arrhythmic time with its subjects’ fascinating, and strangely familiar, confusion.