Revisiting “Off and Running”: Spoiler Warning

Two weeks ago I wrote a short post about the PBS Documentary “Off and Running,” which the adoption STAR staff watched at a staff training dinner. At the time I was hesitant to write about my opinions on the movie because I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to form their own thoughts. The two weeks also gave me the time to speak with different members of the staff, many of whom had differing opinions than I.

Most of the opinions revolved around Avery’s parents, who were the two polarizing characters of the documentary. Before we go any further, I’ll give a quick recap of “Off and Running” to catch everyone up:

The story follows 17-year-old Avery, who is the daughter of two white Jewish women who are raising three children of different races. Avery, who is African American, wants to meet her birth mother and is searching for answers about her past as well as her future. The ironic aspect of the movie is that her search for her birth parents, pushes her further away from the family that raised and loved her, for her entire life.

Now that we’re all caught up on the plot of the documentary, I’d like to take a few minutes to speak about the two mothers. The clip below is an extended preview of the documentary, and it includes parts of the two moments of the movie that made me cringe.

If you watched the video you will hear one of Avery’s mothers say “She was home one night this week, and that was the last we heard from her.”

Personally, I was shocked when I heard this. My thoughts immediately went to my own parents, and I know that if I didn’t come home one night while I was in high school, my parents would have been knocking down every door they knew, and probably would have filed a missing person’s report that night. Maybe that would have been an overreaction, and in fact there were some staff members who watched the movie who applauded the parents for giving Avery her space. I am not a parent and the reactions in the large staff training were emotional. One social worker who is parenting three young children said she wanted to have all of her children physically tied to her. Another social worker who is also parenting young children and counseling teenagers daily was disappointed in some of the reactions saying she wished more parents were like Avery’s parents. Another staff member shared that she took both paths. One, years ago where she was “out on the streets, making calls, panicking and looking for her teen son” and then years later experiencing a similar situation with another child, she is still overwhelmed but has chosen to allow that child more space feeling that this is the healthier reaction. As you can see, our personal and professional experiences play a big role in our reactions to new events.

Another discussion between the staff was whether or not Avery’s parents embraced her culture. I felt that Avery’s parents did not seem interested in embracing Avery’s African American culture. Avery admitted in one scene that she did not know what it meant to be African American. Other staff members felt her parents did try hard to have Avery connected to her culture.

One thing we did all agree on was that during the film one of Avery’s mothers says, “it’s like something really traumatic happened to her, but I don’t think it did.” I believe my jaw dropped to the ground the moment that I heard this quote. Every teenager goes through events that feel life altering at the moment, and I’m sure that a child who was transracially adopted and has no connections to their birth family would feel these emotions even stronger. I couldn’t believe that Avery’s mother couldn’t see that Avery was calling out for help, and that she was struggling with some very personal issues. There is no doubt that Avery was loved by her parents and brothers, but I just felt that she was not understood by any of them, which was very difficult to watch.

Another area of agreement, and one I believe I mentioned in my first post, is that “Off and Running” makes you really think about how an open adoption may have prevented some of the turmoil Avery experienced. If Avery had known about her birth family growing up, I don’t believe she would have had the pressure and anxiety of attempting to find herself at 17.

Luckily for everyone involved, this true-life story seemed to have a happy ending as Avery reconciled with her parents and brothers and started to go to therapy. The messages within this film are extremely powerful. It is a film that should be viewed by all parents as well as teens and young adults including those not touched by adoption or interracial experiences. The film has the ability to connect with all of us no matter what our personal or professional experiences have been.