November 16, 2018

Instant Family

Grade: B –
Director: Sean Anders
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale, and Julie Hagerty
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr.

There are a couple of films debuting over the next several weeks that are directly drawn from their filmmakers’ life experiences. Roma, which will be released (and reviewed) next month, is inspired by director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico City. Meanwhile, opening this week is Sean Anders’ Instant Family, based on Anders and his wife’s personal journey to foster and then adopt three children. Both are earnest films revolving around the nature of family, each obviously informed by their director’s knowledge and intimate familiarity. The difference is that Roma is helmed by the maker of Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity. Meanwhile, Instant Family is brought to you by the director of both Daddy’s Home films and the Adam Sandler debacle That’s My Boy, who also wrote Horrible Bosses 2, We’re the Millers, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Still, the effect of diminished expectations works in Anders’ favor, since while flawed, Instant Family surprises as a heartfelt, even sober assessment of the foster parenting system.

Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are seemingly capable of conceiving children (already a difference from the typical Hollywood depiction of child adoption). However, they stumble into the world of foster parenting out of an honest desire to save unwanted children. Eschewing the usual focus on infants and youngsters, Pete and Ellie are drawn to two normally overlooked categories of foster children: teenagers and siblings. Their initial hope to adopt one child balloons to a Latino family of three: smart but rebellious fifteen-year-old Lizzie (Isabela Moner), her younger, anxious, and somewhat dimwitted brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and the cute but headstrong Lita (Julianna Gamiz).

The honeymoon of Pete and Ellie’s fledgling family doesn’t last long before Lita is flinging any meal that doesn’t include potato chips, Juan is accidently shooting himself with a nail gun, and Lizzie is sneaking off with her friends and exchanging nude selfies with the school’s janitor. Yet, while the typical struggle to form new family is central to Instant Family, Anders’ firsthand experience with the process is obvious throughout. A court review of the parental rights of Lizzie, Juan, and Lita’s birth mother accurately focuses on her progress and the goal of reunification, not the desires of Pete and Ellie. There are moments of awful weakness when Pete and Ellie wistfully recall their carefree salad days before kids, and quietly contemplate returning their wards to their previous foster home, a ramshackle environment where the parents house a flock of fosters just for the government stipend.

But for all its factual underpinning, Instant Family is still a comedy, and that’s where it falters. Anders hasn’t met a reaction shot he doesn’t like, and the comedic setups are both slapdash and pandering. Pete and Ellie’s foster support group is a United Colors of Benetton checklist: the religious couple, the interracial couple, the Hispanic couple, the gay couple, etc. More off-putting, however, is the single mom who candidly, shamelessly, and incessantly wants to adopt an athletic African-American kid who will become her own personal Blind Side—it’s hard to believe someone like her would clear any vetting process.

The supporting cast has a few bright spots. Octavia Spencer and Tig Norato aren’t quite believable as a social worker team, but their comedic rapport fills some narrative dead spots. The always solid Margo Martindale gusts in like a breath of fresh air, playing Pete’s overbearing but kindly mother. Otherwise, the only purpose served by the rest of the cast is letting us know that Julie Hagerty (as Ellie’s ditzy mom) and Joan Cusack (who literally pops up for a late, pointless three-minute cameo) are still around.

Although Instant Family is self-aware enough to acknowledge and address its white savior narrative, the film still comes from an upper middle class POV, perhaps unavoidably given Anders’ experiences. The perspectives of Pete and Ellie, while sincere, aren’t as illuminating, interesting, or tragic as the upbringing of Lizzie, Juan, and Lita, particularly their odyssey through the foster system and the abuses they suffered that are only referenced in vague passing. Indeed, the travails that led to their birth mother losing custody remain abstract and unseen. Instant Family is heartwarming and even genuine, but it’s also as elemental as its ready-to-consume title implies.


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