Film Reviews

Instant Family: A Well-Intentioned PSA for the Foster Care System

If you think this is the movie about two rich, white people adopting three Hispanic kids, ranging in age from 15 to Spongebob-watching years, and having almost Overboard-esque comic adventures, hilariously struggling like Goldie Hawn to their instant family, you’re only half right.

Instant Family, Daddy’s Home writer-director Sean Anders’ vaguely autobiographical account of his own experience adopting three kids at once, is the kind of movie where characters often sound less like real people and more like the personification of talking points in favor of the foster care system in America. In fact, pretty much every time Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer speak as foster counselors directing Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg through the system they might as well be reading from AdoptUSKids handouts.

That much is forgivable because Instant Family is clearly so well-intentioned and nowhere near the broad comedy promised by the trailers.

In fact, there are surprisingly few laughs. Nor, however, are there plenty of tears. Instead, Instant Family kind of just limps along, forever stuck between Anders’ obvious impulse for comedy and clear personal investment in the actual drama of the situation. That’s how we end up with a finale in which Wahlberg and Byrne counsel their emotionally devastated eldest daughter Lizzie (Nickelodeon’s Isabela Moner, who also sings on the soundtrack) while a nosy neighbor (Joan Cusack) we’ve never even seen before just suddenly appears and tries to eavesdrop on their heart-to-heart out of, I guess, sheer curiosity and loneliness.

Anders, clearly, wants to go straight for the heartstrings, but he seems scared of how that will actually play in a mass-appeal, holiday season film like this. So, he goes out of his way to undercut things which should be allowed to simply land on their own as serious moments. The result is a film which is neither as funny nor as dramatic as it probably wants to be, but is just middle-of-the-road and talking point-heavy enough to get its point across.

That point? The foster care system is overwhelmed with too many kids and not enough willing adopters. While it would be recklessly dishonest to suggest the foster-first, adoption-second process will be smooth for everyone or that the kids you take in will seamlessly integrate into your family (the middle section of the film is mostly Wahlberg, Byrne and the kids fighting all the time), the life-enriching reward you will experience is almost indescribable. Also, as Instant Family addresses in its Losing Isaiah third act surprise in which the birth mother re-emerges to claim her kids, you will never be able to fully replace their actual parents, but you will give them something they might never have known before: a loving, supportive family.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A film whose heart is clearly in the right place but whose execution leaves a little to be desired.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  • Biggest surprise: Julie Hagerty and Margo Martindale have decent-sized supporting roles. Hagerty plays Byrne’s mother and Martindale Wahlberg’s.
  • Right around the time you want to accuse Instant Family of white savior syndrome, Wahlberg literally uses that phrase in questioning the optics of them being white people attempting to adopt three Hispanic kids. Notaro and Spencer shoot down those concerns completely, arguing the need is so great they don’t always have the luxury of matching races. A pictured tacked to the start of the closing credits confirms that in his own situation Anders also ended up adopting three Hispanic kids.
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