Synopsis – A couple find themselves in over their heads when they foster three children.
My Take – As I had mentioned before, due to the year-end period and the holiday season in the U.S, Hollywood studios churn out a lot of family films, which may also include films about adoptions. The thing with foster care and adoption films is that they tend to emotional dramas, which obviously makes sense as fosters are usually products of tragedy and neglect, with kids harboring myriad and complex trauma and adoption is a long, emotional, and sometimes painful process that is never a sure thing for any couple, all lending themselves readily to a somber plot.
However, keeping that context in mind, when you hear that a film about such a topic would star Mark Wahlberg and re-team him with his Daddy’s Home Two and Daddy’s Home director Sean Anders, you have every right to be hesitant. Honestly if weren’t for its critical acclaim I wouldn’t have bothered seeing this film, mainly as director Sean Anders never felt like a right fit for such kind of a story, considering how is filmography has ranged from enjoyable (Horrible Bosses 2, We’re the Millers, She’s Out of My League) to atrociousness (That’s My Boy, Sex Drive, Hot Tub Time Machine).
To my huge surprise the film actually turned out to be a surprisingly well made and thoughtful film that is not only funny, but also teaches a very good lesson about family and gratefulness, without being too sappy and cliché-ridden. This is the kind of honest, human comedy that’s so rare from Hollywood these days that when one finally comes along, you sit there in the theater in slack-jawed amazement and wonder: How does a film like this happen?
Turns out, the film is actually based on director Ander‘s own true story about how he and his wife found themselves with three new children in what felt like an overnight cataclysmic shift. Sure, it is not a perfect film, as despite being billed as a comedy, the humor does leave something to be desired, but none of that can take away from how joy you endured in the film’s complete run time.
The story follows Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne), a middle aged couple who enjoy real estate and house flipping and are relatively happy with the life they’ve made together, but soon find themselves thrown into a state of confusion, when they are questioned about the possibility of having kids in the future. Not sure if she can ever have her own, Ellie decides to look into the foster care website, which has an adverse effect her on. While Pete is initially hesitant, a browse through the website forces him to change his stance emotionally.
Instructed by guidance counselors (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro), the two begin taking classes that introduce them to other couples who each have their own reasons for wanting to adopt a child, and eventually end up selecting Lizzy (Isabela Moner), a spunky teenager with attitude, unlike others who prefer kids of a younger age. However, as Lizzy was put into the system together with her younger siblings, the counselors’ advice Pete and Ellie to take in Juan (Gustavo Quiron), her accident prone brother, and Lita (Julianna Gaviz), her revolting little sister. Together they immediately present a challenge for the couple.
The chaos that ensues is born of the trials and tribulations of trying to raise three young strangers, is filled with humor and emotional moments as we feel every ounce of the push and pull struggle that both the Wagners and the children experience as their journey plays out and their fate as a family is sealed and life-changing decisions are made. Even without the initial hint of this being based on actual events, it’s clear from the offset that parenthood and adoption are topics very close to the director’s heart, as he shows an unprecedented level of care and tenderness in telling this story of a suburban couple who decide to become foster parents to three children. Even when it seems like the grounded-into-paste running jokes threaten to overwhelm the entire production, in walk in the exceptionally heart-warming and even tear-jerking moments, which show that this film’s heart is undeniably in the right place.
Here, director Anders has exercised some artistic license picking his fictional avatar, and surely other parts of his story are condensed, altered, and dramatized. For example, once they commit to become foster parents, Pete and Ellie do so with gusto. It’s idyllic at first, tucking the kids in, saying goodnight, waiting for the kids to call them “Mom” and “Dad.” At their support group, a more experienced voice says, “It’s a honeymoon period.” Pete balks: “It doesn’t feel like a honeymoon period.” But like all honeymoons, it doesn’t last. There are tantrums about food, milk, injuries, broken dishes etc.
The kids led by Lizzie is a rebellious teen who sometimes over-parents her younger siblings and other times acts like the child she still is. She is full of trouble as she sneaks friends through windows, disagrees with the Wagners about everything, attempts to dress provocatively to gain the attention of an over aged school employee, and overall rejects any of the love the Wagners show her. While Lita is a lovable five-year-old until someone tells her “no.” She had better be allowed to eat potato chips for every meal and buy a Barbie at the store or she will throw the ultimate tantrum. But Juan is both the least and the most worrisome child. He may have good intentions to behave but he’s the biggest klutz ever. Whether it’s getting stuck on a fence or dropping a nail gun on his foot, he’s constantly requiring medical attention.
As the film moves forward, Pete and Ellie come to grips with the fact that all of the love, care and effort that they’ve invested could end with the children being reunited with their birth mother. As one of the foster care facilitators tells them, “Until the kids are adopted, the primary goal of the system is family preservation.”
The film even manages to avoid the frequent hiccup of the ending, with previous films involving custody disputes rarely handled well. No spoilers here, but the way it nimbly dodges most of the bigger potholes with that setup is frankly astounding, coming from the same filmmaker who once opened on pedophilia as a joke in That’s My Boy. Then again, given how this film also deals with that topic, it seems even director Anders has realized his mistakes.
Two moments prominently featured in the trailer attempt to wring laughs from the image of an anxious Juan getting violently smacked in the face with a ball. They speak to the worst impulses of writer-director Sean Anders, whose tendency to go for broad slapstick and cheap gags has carried across films like the Daddy’s Home series. Yet a scene in which that same kid is hurt and the film takes his injury incredibly seriously speaks to the best impulses of the film. While the film is a comedy, this film definitely does not shy away from heavy-hitting topics such as: the ‘white-savior’ complex, the rejection of love that often accompanies children and adults who’ve been abandoned, the fear and insecurities of adoptive parents, the rejection that adoptive parents experience from their adoptive kids after visits with their real parents, and the discrimination that adoptive parents experience when they adopt “other peoples’ kids”.
To provide even more balance, the film also includes a bunch of other foster families as recurring supporting characters to ensure that Pete and Ellie’s story isn’t the only one being told. Although the film keeps things relatively light in its main story line, it acknowledges the harshest realities facing many kids who end up in the system—from physical and sexual abuse to struggles with addiction. The film makes adoption look worthwhile, but never sugarcoats how difficult it is either. While adoption is not a laughing matter, under the direction of Sean Anders the film does not make a mockery of adoption with comedy, but rather lightens the load that many adoptive parents and kids carry. The film is the feel-good comedy that families will love this holiday season. Nothing beats a film that showcases the healing power of love and not giving up on family. Grandma Sandy (Margo Martindale) as the loud, loving, heart-of-gold having grandparent — is the relative that every kid craves.
Now, with all that said, this still has some of the same tonal issues that have plagued his previous efforts. The jokes may be rationalized as a defense mechanism to prevent parents from going insane, but for a PG effort, the gags too often venture into the cringe-worthy and highly unpleasant.
The acting on its own is pretty good as expected with Mark Wahlberg laying down his comedic and dramatic chops well, while Rose Byrne plays more of the straight, maternal type with a couple choice moments of her own. However, it’s Isabela Moner as the eldest child, who gives a performance so down-to-earth, funny and heart-breaking that you can’t get enough of her. In supporting roles, Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro also provide ample weight to the film. Margo Martindale’s on-screen presence is luminous and brings joy and energy to every scene that she takes part in. The kids, Gustavo Quiron and Julianna Gaviz, also put in commendable performances. On the whole, ‘Instant Family’ is a light hearted comedy drama that perfectly mixed both humor and tear-jerking emotions.
Directed – Sean Anders
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 118 minutes