It’s the PBS-documentary equivalent of a Hollywood high-concept movie: Avery Klein-Cloud, an African-American track-star teen adopted by a pair of Jewish lesbian moms along with two brothers (one racially mixed, one Korean), rebels against her family upon making contact with her biological mother. But thanks to Nicole Opper’s access (she’s the athlete’s former teacher and family friend), we’re treated to a remarkably intimate chronicle of a girl’s identity struggle, from being the only black student in Hebrew school to trying to fit into a predominantly African-American high school.
Off and Running initially succeeds at accounting for the formation of this unlikely family unit, but as the subject’s life starts to unravel, cut-rate cable TV techniques (trifling montages, an overactive string score) deaden the full impact of her crisis. This overpolished professionalism parallels that of Avery’s parents, whose well-mannered rationalism proves ill-suited to deal with the young woman’s tumult. Their oldest child, Rafi, clearly has taken after them; he articulates his orphan history into a prizewinning essay and enrollment at Princeton. The film’s strongest moment pits the siblings against each other in frank conversation about what power they have in defining their histories and futures, as they tacitly elect for different paths. It’s a scene that suggests how this exceptional story would have been better left to speak on its own unvarnished terms.