Instant Family is a welcome surprise
Based on the trailer for Instant Family, I expected a light, occasionally funny R-rated comedy featuring the hilarious Rose Byrne and the perpetually exasperated character often employed by Mark Wahlberg. Firstly, I must not have been fully paying attention since this film is PG-13, which alters the kinds of places it can go (I can confirm the single MPAA-allotted f-word is well deployed). Secondly, I was not prepared to be consistently moved and entertained by a powerful, heartfelt look at foster families. Even the pre-show video from director Sean Anders explaining that the film is partially autobiographical did not prepare me for what was to come.
The film centers on Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne), deciding that now that their house-flipping business is stable, it is time to start a family. An off-handed comment from Pete about getting ahead by adopting a 5-year old to lessen the blow of being an ‘old dad’ leads Ellie to research becoming a foster parent. An information session led by social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro)–who will no doubt be overlooked as one of the best comedic pairs of the year–leads to them moving forward. They decide to adopt teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), and don’t back down when they realize she comes with her younger brother and sister, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). The rest of the film is their journey towards becoming a family, with all of the obvious and non-obvious obstacles that entails.
A worse version of Instant Family would gloss over these issues or veer hard into being a longform PSA, but the film manages to be mostly thoughtful in walking that balance. Yes, there are a lot of statistics and explaining about how the foster system works and the children that are in need of homes, but the information is woven so that it feels organic to the scene. Some of the comedic aspects of the film jut out at odd angles–there’s a recurring bit about The Blind Side that is very funny but feels apart from the tone of the rest of the film.
The film also earns points for addressing privilege in an earnest way. Pete worries that adopting Latinx kids will make him look too much like a white savior. Both Pete and Ellie question their motives for starting a family, whether it be for doing something good or for vanity. Their lack of conviction makes them feel more like real people rather than the pedestal that we usually place good people atop. I realize that for some, this film will reek of schmaltz, these rough edges make the film even more endearing to me.
The core of this film is Pete and Ellie trying to form a relationship with Lizzy. Moner nails the performance. She’s a typical teenager, but one with a lot of trauma in her past as well, and even seeing her foster parents as parents is a struggle. Earning her trust isn’t easy, nor is it linear or rational. Ander’s script captures that sense while still building to a rightfully uplifting ending. The younger kids also give great performances, with Quiroz especially excelling equally at pratfalls and sympathetic tears.
There’s a strong undercurrent about vulnerability Anders explores. Who do we let in beyond our emotional guards? I don’t have children, but I’ve never seen any other film consider parenthood as a choice to become vulnerable to a complete stranger for the rest of your life. And Instant Family posits that the promise to that child that you will simply be there for them, even if they are otherwise alone, is the chief responsibility as a parent.
For all of its small misfires, it's good intentions and reminder about the good that exists in the world had me leaving the theater with that same feeling I got from Paddington 2 and Won’t You Be My Neighbor. ‘Nicecore’ is the movie trend of 2018, and I am here for it.
Instant Family opens today in Philly theaters.