Instant Family (2018)
Just add chaos, laughter, awkwardness, mistakes, love.
Every so often a film comes along that warms your heart and makes you feel all mushy inside — Instant Family is one such picture. Based in-part on director Sean Anders’ own experiences, adopting children through Seneca Family of Agencies’ Kinship Centre, and the accounts of other stand-in parents he’d met and shared stories with along the way, Instant Family is, on the one hand, a big-hearted family comedy, negating the highs and lows of taking such a daunting, life-changing journey. On the other, it’s a bit of a social commentary, shedding light on the trauma and tragedy involved with kids coming out of our sometimes flawed foster care system (both over in the States and here in Australia). And being someone who works in education, I’ve seen these hard-hitting realities first hand.
Parenting can be a troublesome enough task for those who have their own biological children, let alone those who aren’t. Unlike other fluff pieces that spotlight the more gooey, glitzy side of adoption — Stuart Little (1999) and Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy (1999) spring to mind — Instant Family is a refreshingly honest, warts-and-all exploration of what it means to be a foster parent today, telling an emotion-charged story about an everyday American couple who suddenly decide to become a nuclear family overnight. And while it doesn’t shy away from the underplayed side of becoming a proxy parent — think dealing with children’s emotions, pre-existing baggage, and/ or conditions — it openly promotes the overlooked responsibility, and the endless joy and positivity it can bring those willing to take the leap — be it traditional married couples, same sex, or even singles, the film representing all of these families in one way or another.
Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star as Pete and Ellie Wagner, your typical happily married middle-aged, middle-class couple, flipping houses together in Atlanta for a living. While generally content with their lifestyle, their world goes topsy-turvy after a throwaway comment made by Ellie’s baby-obsessed sister Kim (Allyn Rachel) — ‘They’re obviously never having kids,’ she remarks — during a Thanksgiving family gathering, which urges Pete and Ellie to reconsider their life choices. That very night, they’re on the AdoptUsKids website, which is pouring with photos and stories of adorable tykes in need of rescue. Ellie’s mind is made up almost right away, although Pete might need some convincing.
Before you know it, Ellie and Pete are assigned their very own social workers, Karen and Sharon — played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who share a strange dynamic and don’t quite click, even as odd-couple characters. The Wagners also attend meetings with a sundry bunch of prospective foster mommies and daddies; throughout their many trials and tribulations, this diverse group function as the couple’s channel of support, offering suggestions to the newly minted parents when their enthusiasm or chips are down, the members sharing their own successes and failures as substitute parents. On that, Iliza Shlesinger’s pedantic, tightly wound Caucasian, October, is a little uncomfortable (to say the least) and feels completely at odds with the narrative’s high-minded messages — she’s a self-serving single woman desperate to reel in a gifted Afro-American teen, so that she can mold him into a star athlete; honestly, all her scenes should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.
Anyhow, part of the foster process involves going to an ‘Adoption Fair,’ where would-be parents get a chance to meet and mingle with adorable kiddies in need of loving folks and homes — but don’t go talking to a teenager, because who wants to take one of those home? An unexpected turn of events, however, leads Ellie and Pete to look into adopting a sassy, argumentative 15-year-old Latino girl named Lizzy (Isabela Moner), whose mother is a drug addict currently serving time for accidentally setting fire to their home. Problem is, Lizzy is a package deal, meaning that she comes with her two younger siblings, the anxious, overly-sensitive Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), who’s round about 10, and their cute but stubborn 5-year-old sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz), who, amongst other things, is adamant on only eating potato chips for dinner. And just like that, the Wagners become an instant family, bringing home three new additions. Oddly, it’s never made clear why Pete and Ellie don’t just have children, ya know, the good old fashioned way, but I digress.
Between Lizzy’s provocative outfits and bathroom sexting, Juan’s nail-through-the-foot accident (requiring immediate ER attention), and Lita’s incessant tantrum-throwing (demanding Barbie dolls at her beck and call), Pete and Ellie very quickly realize that they may be in over their heads, the twosome (who certainly have their hands full) learning that adoption is not always sunshine and rainbows — well, not right away anyway.
Written by director Anders and regular co-writer John Morris, Instant Family is a film that has its heart in the right place. It’s a candid, personal story for Anders, who’s clearly put a lot of himself into the film and its characters — he has cast the strapping Marky Mark Wahlberg to play himself for Pete’s sake, who embodies the likable chump he’s so accustomed to playing — Pete is basically a watered down version of Dusty from Anders’ Daddy’s Home flicks. With that said, Instant Family can, at times, be a bit uneven, going from heart-wrenching to humorous then tear-jerking, all at the flick of a switch. Despite trying to tackle some difficult subject matter, though, it’s still an entertaining, feel-good romp with a squeaky-clean sitcom-y flavor, featuring a handful of appropriately upbeat needle drops, including Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ and George Harrison’s ‘What Is Life.’
Admittedly, the movie works best when dealing with the realistic struggles of foster parenting, portraying the comedic side of the situation, which brings out the drama and conflict — naturally, Juan and Lita warm to Pete and Ellie first (the duo reveling in their respective first ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ acknowledgments), while Lizzy, who bottles up her feelings, is convinced that their stay with the Wagners will be brief, putting up an emotional front that takes time and effort to wear down.
The family bonding scenes and intimate heart-to-hearts are especially affecting (calling to mind early Judd Apatow), and come off as genuine — we believe that these characters are real three-dimensional people, and we care for them. The visual gags all work, too, these cropping up once Pete and Ellie’s ‘honeymoon period’ fades, and the kids begin to display their bratty, sometimes worrying behaviors, often with hilariously disastrous results — from the rebellious Lizzy, who sneaks friends into her bedroom via the window, and a calamitous family dinner, to the littlies painting Ellie’s mother’s face with permanent marker, it’s fun watching the unprepared Pete and Ellie try to keep it together.
With its jumble of tones, however, some of the comedy does feel awkward; a bizarre Joan Cusack cameo is wholly off-base, the character disrupting a touching family moment near the film’s climax, Cusack essentially playing Sheila Jackson from television’s Shameless (2011), who looks as though she’s wandered onto the wrong set. Furthermore, a hush-hush relationship between Lizzy and a school faculty member is a tad tasteless, especially given the movie’s themes and ideas. Besides, the ups and downs of adolescence are tricky enough waters to navigate without the strain of illicit capers.
Just on Lizzy, Nickelodeon alumni Isabela Moner, Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), is a revelation here, delivering a home-run performance that credibly sells the teen’s hurt, doubt, and confusion. Her often-fiery squabbles with a top form Rose Byrne (who’s clearly playing to her strengths) are authentically acted, while Lizzy’s eventual acceptance into the Wagner band will surely get those more sensitive viewers watery-eyed. Moner also convincingly shoulders a second act story-thread about wanting to reunite with her birth mother — of the three youngsters, Lizzy is the only one not pulled directly from Anders’ real-world experiences, and the talented 17-year-old does wonders to humanize her.
Other notable turns come from Margo Martindale, August: Osage County (2013), who rocks a glaring ‘Grandma Sandy’ tee as Pete’s teddy-bear-like mother Sandy, while Julie Hagerty, Flying High (1980), portraying Ellie’s spirited mom Jan, wrings out some decent laughs with her white lady mispronunciation of Juan (or Whooahn), her new grandson’s name.
Faring better than many of the lazy studio comedies spilling out of Hollywood these days, Instant Family is an absolute gem — it’s earnest, truthful, funny and uplifting, often all at the one time. Shortcomings notwithstanding, Anders has crafted a straight-up crowd-pleaser that’s certain to resonate with people everywhere — it may even get childless couples to consider adoption, or at least start a discussion. Oh, and if you’re a cynic or your heart hasn’t melted by the film’s conclusion, I challenge you to sit through the credits without getting teary, which not only shows a photograph of the Anders clan (on which this film is based), but images of other happy foster families as well, scrolling down as Moner’s heartfelt ‘I’ll Stay,’ a sure-fire anthem for adopted kids everywhere, draws a curtain on the proceedings.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner