Instant Family offers a heart-warming and nuanced view of fostering children in a fun film filled with laughs.
Written by Sean Anders and John Morris and directed by Sean Anders, Instant Family tells the humorous story of Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne), based on events in Anders’ own life, about their decision to adopt three children: Lizzy (Isabela Moner), Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and Lita (Julianna Gamiz).
Children were never really on the table for Pete and Ellie. They are content with their life flipping houses, until Ellie begins to consider adoption, largely on a whim. Pete also begins reading about the children in the foster care system, and they set out to become certified as foster parents. Eventually, three siblings, each posing different challenges to Pete and Ellie, are placed in their home: teenage Lizzy and here younger brother and sister Juan and Lita.
My expectations for Instant Family were that it would be a feel-good movie with just enough drama and emotional manipulation to feel believable. I certainly was not expecting a movie that was both genuinely funny and also not shy about showing foster parenting (and parenting in general) as an extraordinarily difficult thing.
While there were some slapstick elements, Anders did not rely too much on that. Anders chose to focus on interpersonal comedy which added to the overall message and plot of the film.
Anders’ biggest risk in making Instant Family were portraying adoption and foster parenting as too easy for the sake of comedy, and portraying it as too difficult for the sake of not trivializing the challenges it poses. The links to adoption resources on the film’s website, the information shared at the end of the movie, and Anders’ own experience fostering and adopting are clear signs that aside from the normal goals in making a comedy movie, Anders wants to encourage people to consider whether becoming foster parents is something they can do. With over 400,000 US children in foster care, and far too few qualified foster parents, that is certainly a dire need.
Presenting foster parenting as something that anyone can do is dishonest, both because of the normal difficulties of parenthood and the other challenges that children in foster care face, either stemming from the reasons they were removed from their homes in the first place or negative experiences in other foster families. Likewise, making it seem that adoption is something so unusually difficult that only a select few are cut out for it doesn’t help anyone either, something the movie is explicit about early on.
Despite the humor, Instant Family took care not to sugarcoat adoption and foster parenting. Fostering children, especially ones that have been in foster care for several years, is a notoriously difficult task, and there’s a reason there is such a shortage of foster parents. Pete and Ellie have more than one conversation about the difficulty of what they’ve taken on, and at one point discuss (albeit without intent to follow through) how they could place the children back in the system and still look the hero to their friends and family.
Instant Family isn’t Anders’ first comedy about a non-traditional family starring Mark Wahlberg. Daddy’s Home (and the creatively titled sequel Daddy’s Home 2) looks at a dad and step-dad’s efforts to raise the same kids. Instant Family is ultimately a better movie than Daddy’s Home, in part because of its embrace of the complications that come with fostering and adopting children, and in part because of better jokes. Far from being a feel-good adoption movie with a few jokes tossed in at the end, Instant Family stays both serious and funny without sacrificing either.