Too many family movies dismiss the challenges of parenthood and childhood with some feel good ending. Instant Family makes no bones that any happiness is going to come with challenges that won’t go away at the end of the movie, and it’s stronger for it.
Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) decide to adopt a child who already needs a family. When they see how teenage foster children are ignored by other couples, they decide to take a chance on Lizzie (Isabela Moner). Lizzie comes with younger siblings Lita (Julianna Gamiz) and Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) so Pete and Ellie suddenly have an instant family.
Writer/director Sean Anders captures the moment when the honeymoon phase becomes real. A dinner table blow up is presented like the apocalypse.
What becomes more clear is that it’s the domesticity that’s tough. Crisis actually bonds them together as a family, but there won’t always be a crisis to focus on so they’ll have to figure this out.
Instant Family captures how hard it is for foster parents, rightfully. They volunteered for this and volunteered to provide for these kids.
Most movies would stop there. Instant Family knows as hard as it is for foster parents, it’s even harder for the kids. On top of what they’ve been through in at risk homes and through the system, kids are still new at existing. They don’t have the life experience their parents on which they can rely.
This is true of all families, not just fosters. I am and was always grateful for the life I’ve had, but I’m always going to side with kids when they have a rough time.
A kid is still trying to figure out how to live with feelings like sadness and anger, even as old as 15. Yes, the parents are providing financial support, giving time and their own emotional stress, but a kid can’t be expected to identify with that when they haven’t had the experience of growing up yet. They’re still developing empathy. That’s just the sacrifice parents sign up for.
As hard as adulting is, I wouldn’t trade this for growing up again. At least now I’ve been through stuff. I know how I’ve solved problems in the past, and more importantly I know what didn’t work so I won’t try that again.
And Instant Family allows Ellie and Pete to express the difficulties and feel like giving up. It’s not sugar coated. But they decide they couldn’t live with themselves if they gave up.
That’s what it’s about. It’s not about forgetting your problems, or even letting the good outweigh the bad. It’s about embracing all of it and deciding this is worth it.
Cool dad is definitely a good role for Wahlberg. Byrne has already played an endearing mom in the Neighbors movies, although having older children costars brings out even more endearing qualities.
What Byrne does in both roles is she’s not afraid to show the strain. Whether a newborn mother or a foster mother, she’s not trying to be June Cleaver, and that makes us love her more.
As foster agents Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro), Spencer and Notaro are doing a vaudeville routine. It’s mainly Sharon as the straight man to Karen’s outbursts but Sharon cracks too.
Margo Martindale shows up as Grandma Sandy and is unparalleled at dropping the parental wisdom, while still totally caving to the adorable grandchildren.
The foster system seems tailor made to movie structure. Every step of the way there are potentials for disappointments and setbacks, right where the movie needs them.
That’s bad for real life. In real life they should try to make the system smooth for these kids, but at least a movie can show people what these families go through.
The script is smart about handling arguments against adoption, expressed by Ellie’s family members. People would probably be far less sensitive, but thanks to A-list Hollywood writing, they can express natural feats with some elegance, and still be wrong.
Likewise, the pro-adoption arguments this prompts in Pete and Ellie are equally compelling. Real people probably wouldn’t be so articulate in the heat of a family argument, but they get to say what needs to be said and it’s empowering.
Instant Family is putting a lot of good out into the world. Whether it’s encouraging families to consider adoption, showing foster families they are not alone or telling all families it’s okay to be overwhelmed, this is all healthy and valuable. In a funny, entertaining and heartwarming package, that’s something everyone can enjoy together when they’re home for the holidays.
Instant Family opens Friday in theaters.