Adolescence is a miserably difficult time. That’s about the time that Nicole Opper decided that she was going to be Jewish. That’s about the time that Avery Klein-Cloud, the subject of Opper’s first feature-length film, “Off and Running,” began to struggle with questions of her own identity, questions not unlike those the filmmaker had wrestled with a decade or so before, only much more complicated.
“Off and Running,” which opens here on Jan. 29, deals with those potentially painful issues of identity with a considerable degree of intelligence and some much-needed reticence. This documentary profiles Klein-Cloud and her unusual family constellation. Avery is an African-American teenager, the adopted daughter of Jewish lesbians Tova and Travis, and the sister of two more adopted siblings, Rafi, a mixed-race young man of considerable warmth and intelligence, and Samuel Isaiah (nicknamed Zay-Zay), a charming Korean-American boy who is the youngest of the three.
Compared to Avery’s situation, Opper’s was simple. Her mother, a Presbyterian from Kansas, and her father, a Jew-turned-Buddhist, had both become atheists, but when Nicole attended a synagogue service when she was 12, she was transported by the music and mesmerized. I knew that this was what I was meant to be.” she says emphatically.
Sitting in the reception room of the company that is distributing “Off and Running,” Opper recalls pursuing a Jewish education on her own, having a bat mitzvah ceremony, and a Reform confirmation and eventually going off to Israel for a year’s study before settling into the Jewish arts scenes in New York and, more recently, in her hometown of San Diego.
Significantly, it was while she was in her late teens that the 29-year-old Opper began to discover documentary film, including the work of key figures like Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles Brothers and, later, Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb”).
“What a fascinating way to learn about the world,” she recalls thinking at the time. And it was a way of imparting that knowledge to other young people, as Opper began teaching filmmaking to high school students while working on her own projects.
Appropriately enough, that is how Nicole met Avery.
“She was in my first film class,” Opper says. “She was 12 years old. And our relationship turned into a friendship. So by the time we finished the film I’d known her and her family for 10 years.”
Although the filming process took place over three years, the film, Opper says, “is really just a snapshot.”
Which is what you might expect when you distill 36 months into 76 minutes.
But it is a terrifically compelling snapshot, taken at a period when Avery was going through the kind of turmoil that only an adolescent can create or withstand.
At the film’s outset, Avery has decided to contact her biological mother in an effort to learn more about her identity. “I’m very new to black culture, and I don’t understand it,” she says at one point in the film. Her Jewish moms make every conceivable effort to help Avery in a time of difficult self-evaluation, but teenagers have a knack for making most things difficult, and the questions she is facing are genuinely complex, and have no simple answers. By the time the film ends, Avery has been through enough adolescent identity crises — as a track athlete, a student, a Jew, an African-American, a young woman — for several films. And it is no small tribute to Opper’s deft sorting of events that despite its brief running time, the film feels leisurely enough to allow its central figure some very satisfying privileged moments.
The film is also a tribute to Avery Klein-Cloud, because she is co-author of the film’s screenplay. But what, exactly, does it mean to say someone has written a documentary film?
For starters, Avery wrote the voice-overs that are heard at several key points in the film. And, Opper notes, she was in the editing room for much of the film’s final shaping.
“We discovered she has a real flair for this,” Opper says. “It was a natural and organic way of working, since she had once been my student. She began as the subject of the film but we quickly reached a working method that was informed by decisions she made.”
The most important decision Avery made, however, was one that shook up Opper and the entire Klein-Cloud family. About a year into the filming process, Avery dropped out of sight, “off the planet,” as Opper puts it.
This is the mixed blessing of making documentary films: you almost never know what is going to happen next.
“I take a certain pleasure in that,” Opper says with a slightly rueful smile. “I’m a student in the process, too. Of course, the work of designing a film then takes place in the editing room.”
It doesn’t hurt that the filmmaker had a lot of faith in her former student and longtime friend.
“But I admit I was wondering how long this [soul-searching] was going to take,” she says. “There was a deadline.”
Happily, when Avery came back home, she did so with a renewed enthusiasm for the film and work was completed in April 2009, which meant that the first prints shown at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival in early May were, as they say in the industry, still wet.
Klein-Cloud is now a full-time student at Delaware State on a track scholarship, so she doesn’t have much time for touring with “Off and Running,” but she still makes it to an occasional screening. Most recently, she was a guest of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which happened to coincide with her birthday. The film’s enthusiastic audience sang “Happy Birthday” to her, to the amusement of the entire family and Opper.
On the whole, not a bad way to pass out of adolescence and into young adulthood.
“Off and Running” opens Friday, Jan. 29 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave., at West Third Street). For information, call (212-924-7771) or go to www.ifccenter.com.