Inspired by the real-life experience of writer/director Sean Anders and his wife when the fostered and then adopted children, Instant Family is part message movie and part broad comedy. But, don’t hold that against it. This is an even-paced, visually contemporary story with plenty of heart and humor appeal.
No, that is not what I expected to say about this film after watching the trailer or reading the plot summary…
When Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), stumble into the world of foster care after Ellie’s sister make an off-the-cuff comment about the pair never having children. Like most, they hope to take in one small child but after a meet-and-greet encounter with a sharp-witted 15-year-old girl named Lizzie (Isabela Moner), they find themselves agreeing to accept both her siblings as foster kids as well.
Instant Family lays out how the foster care system can be a harrowing experience for children (of all ages), calls out the numerous stereotypes associated with foster care and foster children, the often self-serving reasons why parents come into the system with, and uses humor balanced with relatable encounters and incidents to showcase some of the real ups-and-downs families go through in order to work their way to being a unit.
While I wasn’t a fan of some of the flippant slap-stick often used to transition between scenes and topics (lots of writers and directors really need to learn that not everything requires over the top humor or lampooning to break up tension or deal with a touchy stereotype) Anders’s storyline more than balanced out those unrealistic “movie moments” with a look at exactly how haywire jumping in the deep-end as parents really can be.
Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are well cast as Peter and Ellie. Each brought a believable personality to life and navigated unavoidable themes like cross-racial adoption, privilege, and dealing with extended family drama with a comedic flair that introduced the subjects in a way that was both platable and far more authentic than expected. Plus, Anders finally found an excellent use for that the “Wahlberg babble” and “Byrne whine” that oft detracts from less-fitting characters each has portrayed in the past.
But the real stand-outs are the three children at the center of this story. Five-year-old Lita (Julianna Gamiz) is a temperamental ball of energy while her brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a hyper-anxious soft-spoken wallflower and Lizzie is a sarcastic fifteen-going-on-thirty. This trio of young actors paints a realistic picture of siblings struggling to stay together and keep it together in trying circumstances. Their performances are emotionally nuanced but never fall out of sync with the humor driving the overall storyline.
While the foster care system and the plight of those stuck in it is no laughing matter, Instant Family never shirks its responsibility to entertain even as it chooses to inform. There’s a broad array of foster care situations, family types, and motives that factor in and work well to keep the film’s story from being too narrow or self-congratulatory. The trailers don’t do the content or the performances in this film justice.
Instant Family made me laugh far more than I thought I would (thank you Octavia and Tig) and gave a surprisingly thoughtful and heartfelt perspective on the fostering process and adoption from multiple angles. This family-friendly film is a practically perfectly balanced dramedy.
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