Social Class in “Emma” and “Clueless”

Emma is not about Emma, but about class issues, social structure. It is a study of the interactions between individuals from various social classes and the rigid rules of society that constrain all interactions. Those are very difficult things to convey on-screen in a way that stays true to the plot while also keeping the audience’s attention.

Emma is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels. Despite its rather large cast of unlikable characters, the novel is delightfully clever and funny.  I enjoy watching as Emma Woodhouse grows up from a shallow and spoiled girl into a woman whom not only her friends and neighbors admire, but the reader as well. Her character growth is exciting to watch, and the reader cheers her on as she slowly grows and changes into a better person.

Although Emma Woodhouse is not entirely likable, she always tells herself that she is doing what is best for those around her. She involves herself in matchmaking for her friends and neighbors in Highbury. While the novel is, technically, about Emma, it is moreso about the society in which Emma and her neighbors live and the various codified interactions they have with those of different social classes. Emma is a novel about social structure and class, and the conflicts that arise when living in a society as stratefied as Regency-era England. 

Emma (2020) is the most recent adaptation of the classic novel. However, it struggles to compete with Clueless (1995), an adaptation of the novel set in the modern world and focused on the love-lives of privileged teenagers in Los Angeles, California. Although Anya-Taylor Joy is a good actress and does an admirable job in portraying Emma Woodhouse, Emma does not have a likable protagonist. This is, perhaps, the way in which the film stays closest to the source material. For most of the 2020 movie, Emma is an unlikable character, much as she is at the beginning of Austen’s novel.

I can’t lie. Emma is an aesthetically pleasing movie. Director Autumn de Wilde is most known for her photography, and her eye for a pleasing picture makes itself known in the film. The colors, sets, and cinematography are beautiful. The eye-catching costumes contrast beautifully with the neutral and more sedate backgrounds. 

But the theme of the movie feels all wrong. Admittedly, I couldn’t get myself to finish the movie. Although it felt like a waste of the $3.99 I paid to rent the movie, I had to turn off the movie three-quarters of the way in. I thought the movie was terrible. While the plot points were true to those in the novel, it all felt like it lacked Austen’s wit and humor. Sure, there were funny moments, and I appreciated how the score made several scenes ironic and laughable. 

But it lacked the distinct charm and relatability which makes both the novel and Clueless such classics. The characters are written and portrayed in such a way that it is difficult for the modern audience to relate to them, but at the same time, they’re not so antique-feeling that one can see them as charming vestiges of a long-gone era. 

Emma is a difficult story to elegantly and successfully adapt for a modern audience. At its core, Austen’s Emma is about social class. Miss Harriet Smith is potentially of high enough social status to marry the vicar, Mr. Eliot, but certainly not of the right social status to marry Mr. Knightley. Emma Woodhouse is of too high status to ever consider marrying Mr. Eliot, but of the right status to consider either Mr. Knightley or Mr. Churchill. And this list of overlapping social statuses goes on and on and dictates most–if not all–of the novel. 

An adaptation must handle these class issues in a way that makes sense to its audience. Emma features potential couples who are not only ill-suited because of their incompatible personalities and temperament, but also because of their vastly different social standing. 1995’s Clueless handles this issue by setting the scene in a system of semi-rigid social classes with which we are all familiar: Hollywood-imagined high school, riddled with stereotypical divisions of social standing. 

The newest adaptation of Emma does not handle this issue as elegantly. The social classes are unclear, although they are alluded to and somewhat illustrated by showing the differences in clothing, manners, and homes. Mr. Knightley does allude to Harriet Smith’s social standing when he tells Emma why the girl is foolish for turning down her first proposal. Still, he never exactly explains why, or that Mr. Elton is somewhere on the social totem pole below land-owning members of society like Mr. Knightey but above tenant farmers like the Martins. 

Emma is lacking a quality that I cannot explain in words. Unlike Pride and Prejudice (2005) or even Mansfield Park (1999), Emma does not make itself easily relatable to its audience. The struggles Emma and the other characters face do not become the struggles of the audience. Throughout the movie, I was struggling to make myself care about the plot and about each of the characters, and I’ve read Emma multiple times because I love it. 

Emma is, in my opinion, a much more difficult story to adapt to the screen than any of Austen’s other novels. Emma is not about Emma, but about class issues, social structure. It is a study of the interactions between individuals from various social classes and the rigid rules of society that constrain all interactions. Those are very difficult things to convey on-screen in a way that stays true to the plot while also keeping the audience’s attention. 

Clueless is able to do this so much more easily than Emma because of its modern setting. We are all familiar with the social structure and rules of hierarchy in Cher Horowitz’s life. Rather than being confused or annoyed at the ways societal expectations nudge characters in particular directions, we understand without the film having to deviate into a long-winded explanation. Emma lacks this ease, and honestly, it makes the film difficult to watch. 

“The Alamo” (1960) at the Alamo

The Alamo offered a free showing of the 1960 Western epic on the last Friday of the anniversary of the real siege.

The excitement hit as soon as my eyes fell upon the mission itself. The lights hitting the cracked stones created a beautiful effect of shadow. Continuing to the right of the mission, greeting the Texas Ranger, and walking through the archway all heightened my excitement. Finally, I entered the living history encampment where the movie was shown. With the David Crockett hotel in the foreground, I—and the coonskin hat on my head—settled in to watch The Alamo (1960). 

The start of the movie follows the thirty-two Tennessee volunteers and their leader, Colonel David Crockett, on their last journey to the Alamo. At the Alamo, Colonel William Travis is attempting to slow down the Mexican army, led by Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. When a letter from Colonel James Fannin tells Travis that their reinforcements were stopped by the Mexican army, the need for more men to defend the Alamo increases. 

Throughout the movie, the portrayal of the three main American leaders of the Battle of the Alamo (Travis, Crockett and Bowie) was quite historically accurate. Travis, played by Laurie Harvey, is a highly trained military leader who demands the same level of military standards for all the men in the mission. His leadership style foils Crockett’s, played by John Wayne, who lets his men decide if they want to stay and die defending the Alamo–with some clever persuasion. Bowie, played by Richard Widmark, undergoes the most character development due to the incredibly hard choice he faces at the battle. Bowie’s original plan is to destroy the mission and the cannons, leaving nothing for the Mexican forces to retrieve or use against the rebels. As the siege begins, Travis gives the men the choice to stay or go. At this moment, Bowie is ready to leave the mission, both for practical reasons and his ongoing friction with the stiff, inflexible Travis. However, Bowie changes his mind. He hops off his horse and stands behind Travis. This scene replaces the “line in the sand” moment, which historians still argue over today and is portrayed differently in other Alamo movies. 

Fun fact—this frame from the movie tributes the famous oil painting El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent.
Fun fact—this frame from the movie tributes the famous oil painting El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent.

I was surprised at the portrayal of the Mexican army in this movie version. In typical fashion, the Mexican army is portrayed as a brutal force that murders the Alamo defenders in cold blood. But, in this version, the army seems highly trained and polished. The extras in the movie demonstrated good horsemanship on the screen. Compared to the ragtag volunteer defenders of the Alamo, the Mexican army showed off their beautiful uniforms and military training as they marched towards the defenders. After one of the first scrimmages of the siege, there is a scene with some of the volunteers on their post on the main gate talking about the men of the Mexican army, admiring them for continuing to march towards the walls even though the men around them face destruction by the defenders. Later on in the siege, the army strikes an agreement with the troops that they will allow the women and children to leave the mission peacefully and go wherever they please. This show of humanity continues after the last battle when Susanna Dickinson is spared, along with her daughter and slave. The army shows respect towards Susanna as they give her a donkey and provisions to help her make the journey back to safety. This is the last scene of the movie. While nobody talks, the Mexican army behaves towards Dickinson with great honor. Even Santa Anna himself takes off his hat as Susanna passes him.  

This was a once in a lifetime experience. I had the honor of watching this movie on its sixtieth anniversary at the Alamo itself as a part of the thirteen-day celebration of the 184th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo. Watching the siege on the screen while sitting where it actually took place was an amazing experience. I was able to appreciate not only the movie, but also the Battle of the Alamo on a whole new level.

“Little Women” Off-Kilter but Still Fresh

The success of Gerwig’s Little Women comes from her focus on the emotion of the story rather than the plot.

Louisa May Alcott captured the minds of women and little girls in 1868 and 1869 when she published Little Women and Good Wives, respectively. The story of the four March sisters is one that most little girls grow up with, especially in the United States. She elegantly pulls together a narrative about growing up, hard work, and the struggles one faces when finally turning away from childhood to truly become an adult. 

It’s no wonder that there have been more film and television adaptations of Little Women than are actually worth remembering. Because of the timelessness and relatability of Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women truly is a story than can be adapted for any generation simply by focusing more closely on a few particular themes. The 1933 adaptation starring Katherine Hepburn focuses far more on the March’s poverty and willingness to help those who had even less than themselves. When the story was again adapted for the big screen in 1949, it changed to be more relatable to viewers by focusing on the little pleasures that buying something nice for yourself or a loved one can bring into your life. It places more emphasis on the importance of the Civil War and the repercussions that war has on the March girls while their father is away to fight for the Union. In 1994, Winona Ryder starred as a version of Jo March who was ready to take on the patriarchy and prove that women could be just as good as boys and could accomplish anything if they set their minds to it.

The latest version of “Little Women” is far more inclusive of women who have different aspirations in life.

And in 2019? Again, the story and its themes have been adapted for the newest generation and audience. The success of Gerwig’s Little Women comes from her focus on the emotion of the story rather than the plot. By starting in media res and using emotional and thematic flashbacks to tie everything together, the 2019 adaptation of Little Women breathes new life into an old and beloved story.

This version deals a lot more with the realities of life for women in the late 19th century. Amy March, usually known as a vapid and spoiled girl, delivers a monologue about the unfairness of her opportunities in life. She admonishes Laurie for not taking full advantage of the opportunities he has, opportunities that are denied Amy due to her gender and parentage. Meg settles into her new life as a married woman and struggles to give up her childhood hope of marrying rich and owning little trinkets to make her life prettier. She realizes, though, that her life is wonderful and happy because she loves her husband and her children and simply being with her family. Unlike Jo, she doesn’t need a job or a career or to make money to be happy. She just needs her family. 

The latest version of Little Women is far more inclusive of women who have different aspirations in life. The film shows how Amy’s aspiration to marry rich is just as valid as Meg’s desire for a small, humble family. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation does not look down on the more traditionally feminine March girls who want to focus on marriage in family instead of making their own living. 

Some may argue that there’s no need to reimagine old classics and that it’s all a ploy for Hollywood to make more money–which is at least a little true. After all, if you’re going to tell the same story in the same way, then why tell it at all? Take several of Disney’s new remakes of their old classics. Cinderella (2015) beautifully reimagined a classic story for the children of the modern era–and their parents who were a bit wary of encouraging marriage on a week-old whim. However, did The Lion King (2019) really add anything to the original story? Almost line-by-line, it is the same story, except with a CGI Simba replacing the beloved cartoon.

While Gerwig tries to toe the line between telling Alcott’s story and telling the story of Little Women, she can only succeed in telling one story at a time.

Gerwig’s adaptation breaks the mold of tacky, overdone remakes. Unlike any Little Women adaptation before, Gerwig is true not only to the source material but also to the life and experiences of Louisa May Alcott. Take, for instance, the scene in which Jo chases after the professor to ask him to stay with her in Concord. Gerwig cleverly juxtaposes the seemingly romantic scene between the heroine and her beau with scenes comically similar to conversations held between Alcott’s publisher and the authoress herself. Jo March rushes after her love interest, and then the same Jo March argues that the heroine of her book should certainly not end up with either of the male characters of her acquaintance. When Jo and her publisher come to an agreement about the ending of the book and her payment, the movie returns to the ‘romantic’ scene between the two ‘lovers.’

It’s jarring, especially for anyone simply looking for a fun little movie about four girls growing into young–or perhaps I should say little–women. These scenes feel satirical because they are. Gerwig is not afraid to poke fun at the scenes which Alcott herself only wrote to appease her publisher. However, the scene (and other scenes filmed in a similar manner) felt out of place in the film.

While the interpretation of Alcott’s thoughts on the text are certainly new and fresh for many Little Women fans, one must also ask: should we interpret literature based on what it says, or based on what the author perhaps intended to say? It’s a difficult line to straddle; can you truly understand what the author is saying if you do not also interpret her intent? Can you ever fully know the author’s intent? In the case of Louisa May Alcott, we have journal entries and letters to her publisher to help give modern scholars insight into her own thoughts. But for the average reader who may not have access to these materials, is it necessary to fully understand Alcott and her circumstances to appreciate her work?

These are questions that Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women attempts to answer by incorporating aspects of Alcott’s life into its narrative. Unfortunately for Gerwig, I don’t think most members of the audience will appreciate the irony imbued into the narrative of Little Women. These moments can come across as awkward grabs for comedy that don’t fit the storyline. While Gerwig tries to toe the line between telling Alcott’s story and telling the story of Little Women, she can only succeed in telling one story at a time. Interconnecting the two in a single narrative structure is not effective and only manages to tell two stories in awkward tandem. 

However, if one disregards these brief moments, Little Women (2019) is still a charming and emotionally charged movie that deftly deals with heavy, coming-of-age themes in a manner appropriate for most audiences.

Review: Shazam!

Shazam! Is the most recent DCEU movie to come to theaters. Like its predecessor, Aquaman, Shazam! Is full of light-hearted humor to break up the action sequences. Overall, I thought it was a really good movie. And, surprisingly, I found it to have some very conservative values.

In the film, the main character Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is chosen to wield the powers of the wizard Shazam. His powers allow him to become an adult (Zachary Levi), and the first part of the film centers around Billy as he learns to use his powers. In the beginning, Billy abuses his powers and uses them to goof off instead of using them for good.

Eventually, Billy realizes that he must use his powers to defeat the major villain of the movie, Doctor Sivana (Mark Strong). Sivana makes a deal with seven beings who are the physical manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Lust, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Sloth, and Envy. They are based off of the Christian sins of the same names.

The movie has the underlying theme of good defeating evil, as Billy was chosen due to his “pure heart” and the fact that he fights the physical embodiments of sin. In addition, the movie strongly focuses on family.

Billy is a foster kid and he constantly runs from home to home in his attempts to find his birth mom, whom he lost when he was a small child. Eventually, he moves in with a large family in Philadelphia, PA. The family is made up of married couple Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), and the many foster children who live with them: Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Darla (Faithe C. Dudley), Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Pedro (Jovan Armand).

Rosa and Victor do their best to make each child feel welcome in their home. When Billy first arrives, it is obvious how much the family all cares for one another and how welcoming they are to Billy. The kids try to befriend Billy and make him feel welcome, while Victor and Rosa try to make him feel understood by telling him about their own time in the foster system. Rosa and Victor tell Billy that they take in so many foster kids because they knew what it was like to feel as if they didn’t have a home and as if no one really cared about them. The couple tells him that they want to make their house a true home for the kids and to always make them feel welcome. They want to create a true family for the kids whom they take in.

The family theme is incredibly important throughout the film. In the climax, the foster-siblings all work together to defeat Silvas and the Seven Deadly Sins, in a drawn-out action scene that is peppered with funny moments and quips.

Another important theme in the movie is self-improvement. When Billy first gets his powers, he uses them to cut class and to goof off. His focus turns away from his family and friends, and turns toward his own selfish desires. Throughout the movie, however, Billy learns to put others before himself. This makes him a true hero with a compelling character arc. He grows from a somewhat selfish boy who desperately wants to find his mother to a hero who saves lives—not because it is easy, but because it is the right thing to do.

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

Disclaimer: The following review has spoilers

Captain Marvel is the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Captain Marvel was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and produced by Kevin Feige, who oversees the continuity of the entire MCU.

At as the movie opens, the audience is introduced to a character named “Vers,” a warrior for the alien race known as the Kree. She is captured by the enemy race, the Skrulls, but escapes to Earth, landing in the year 1995. There, she meets a two-eyed Nick Fury, and learns that she was once a human pilot for the United States Air Force named Carol Danvers, and that she gained her unusual powers in a plane crash. She also learns that she had been fighting on the wrong side of the war, and turns on the Kree to give assistance to the Skrulls.

The film was released amid controversy surrounding its star, Brie Larson, who plays the titular character (though the name “Captain Marvel” is never actually given to the character Carol Danvers during the film). The outspoken women’s-rights activist claimed that Captain Marvel was going to be a “big feminist movie,” which upset a good portion of its potential audience, especially many devout Marvel fans. Before it was even released, the film received a tidal wave of negative reviews on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, causing the site to consider changing its audience review process to ensure credibility.

This situation spurred uncertainty that the film would live up to Marvel movie expectation. However, this film succeeded in putting most of these fears to rest. There is no doubt that this film will be enjoyed by the general public. The average viewer will see it as nothing more than a cool superhero origin story.

However, those who are heavily invested in the MCU won’t have their expectations blown out of the water. Though Captain Marvel is an enjoyable movie, it doesn’t do anything new. It serves to introduce a character that will be important later, but the stakes were generally low. The movie feels like those released during the MCU’s “phase one”, when all the familiar players were introduced in their own smaller-scale solo films.

This doesn’t make Captain Marvel a bad movie. It simply means that it was burdened with some unreasonably high and wildly varied expectations from diehard Marvel fans that it just could not meet.

If it weren’t held to such high scrutiny, this film would easily be seen as simply fun and enjoyable. Carol Danvers is a solid character and the plot is interesting. There were plenty of moments of genuine emotion and comedy. The film kept a very good pace, keeping the audience interested and attentive throughout. Though the computer-generated animation wasn’t perfect, the imagery was often stunning and colorful, which is a refreshing change from other recent MCU films.

There was fear that the film would be overly focused on feminist messages. The marketing of the film only served to confirm this, as it threw around language suggesting the bravery and physical strength of the character, which perpetuated this fear. Somewhat surprisingly, this was not very pervasive. Danvers is undoubtedly the strongest and most intelligent character in the film. Aside from some snide comments directed towards her by men in her flashbacks, Danvers doesn’t seem to face any obstacles out of mere virtue of being a woman. She is told several times to control her emotions, but the same has been said to many MCU protagonists before her, as lack of emotional control has proven to be a weakness in these films.

These messages can and should be overlooked, as it is important to appreciate a movie for what it accomplishes beyond them. Though it isn’t outstanding within the highly acclaimed MCU, Captain Marvel is a solidly enjoyable film, and might even seem great–without comparison to its predecessors.

Movie Review: Unplanned

On March 30, I went to see Unplanned with various members of Trinity University’s student organization Tigers For Life, a pro-life club. The movie is based on Abby Johnson’s story as she became a director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, TX, and eventually became an outspoken pro-life activist.

I am an active member of Tigers For Life and consider myself knowledgeable about abortion and Planned Parenthood, as the club often hosts tables on campus to talk to our peers about abortion and other pro-life options available to women. I thought I was prepared to watch Abby Johnson’s story.

I was wrong.

Before seeing Unplanned, abortion was something that I knew about in clinical terms. I knew that suction was used to forcibly remove the unborn child from the mother’s womb. I knew that abortion is a traumatic experience for women, and that it has lasting physical and psychological effects on women. However, all of this knowledge was abstract to me.

But when watching the movie, I watched those facts and numbers and figures become the stories of the women with whom Abby Johnson interacted. I had to turn away when Johnson saw the ultrasound of a woman’s baby as it was being aborted. I cried when the fetus tried to move away from the probe, as the baby struggled desperately to save its own life.

Throughout the movie, Johnson’s Planned Parenthood clinic was watched and prayed over by a group called 40 Days for Life. Johnson had multiple conversations with the members of the group, as she often had to interact with them in order to bring patients into the clinic. The movie showed two very different pro-life groups. One was 40 Days for Life, as they peacefully prayed outside the clinic and tried to offer help and other options to the women who were scheduled to have abortions. The other group were not peaceful nor at all helpful.

In the movie, the people who were a part of 40 Days for Life condemned the other group. The other group is what some pro-choicers try to paint all pro-lifers as. People who shame women for having an abortion, and who hate them for having to make a difficult, terrible choice. They were the ones waving signs with graphic pictures of abortion and its effects on a fetus. And Unplanned did a wonderful job of showing audiences that that is not what the pro-life movement is about. Everyone whom Abby interacted with at 40 Days for Life was understanding and compassionate. While they disagreed with abortion and found it wrong, they did not hurl insults at the women at the Planned Parenthood clinic. We should not condemn someone for their beliefs or for their actions. We can only look at them with compassion and sympathy, and help those around us find a solution for their problems.

Because those with 40 Days for Life were so compassionate and understanding, they became the people to whom Johnson turned when she realized all of the evil that was happening at Planned Parenthood. I—and many others in the audience, judging by the loud sniffling and quiet sobbing that filled the theater—cried with Abby Johnson as her movie-representation cried over all of the lives she had ended.

After Johnson became pro-life, she shared a statistic that immediately caught my attention. She told Shawn Carney, the president of 40 Days for Life, that if people are praying outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic, then almost 75% of the women will not show up for their abortion appointments. Oftentimes, I feel useless when doing pro-life work. It feels like no matter how much our group tables on campus, or however much volunteer work we do, our work doesn’t affect those around us. I think that many people feel the same way. But in the movie, Johnson told Carney that, “You can’t even see how much your work actually does.” And that inspires me to keep going and to keep working. Maybe I can’t see how my actions are actually affecting those around me, but I have to have faith that my small words and deeds really can make a difference.

Unplanned opened my eyes to abortion. It forced me to confront abortion. I walked into the movie theatre with a knowledge of abortion, but I was emotionally closed off from it. I was closed off from the horror that is purposefully killing an innocent life. I didn’t let myself think about how truly terrible abortion is, even if I had a vague idea that abortion is bad. Unplanned forced me to confront abortion, and has made me even more eager to do what I can to help the pro-life movement.

Cover image courtesy of Victoria Ydens; depicting Tigers for Life attending Unplanned.

Review: Mowgli Legend of the Jungle

Disclaimer: this article contains spoilers for Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.

Just two years after Disney’s live action remake of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, Netflix has expanded its tendrils into the story with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, directed by Andy Serkis. Serkis’s Mowgli is a much darker take on Rudyard Kipling’s original narrative, and an even farther departure from the animated 1967 film.

Mowgli demonstrates the fundamental flaw with identity politics and the importance of value-based identity over holding to your identity. The fundamental question in this version of the Jungle Book story, more so than other versions, is whether Mowgli is a man or a wolf. Though born a human, he was raised as a wolf, and has fought to hold his own place as a true wolf.

The climax of the movie begins when Mowgli is expelled from the jungle and sent to the village. He doesn’t understand the language (unsurprising as he’s never heard it before) but still tries, after some resistance, to fit in with the men. He bonds with the white hunter as a result of their shared history with Shere Khan, but remains cautious.

Mowgli is explicit in acknowledging that he isn’t all man or all wolf, but something in between. This is the kind of nuance with which conservatives are comfortable. Mowgli is able to embrace what progressives might call his “identity” as a man, not shying away from all that entails—namely, running on two legs, and using a knife to fight Shere Khan, rather than his teeth and “claws” like might be expected of him if he really were a wolf.

Mowgli tries for a time to be all man, befriending the hunter. But ultimately, his values are incompatible with the man village. This is clearest when Mowgli discovers that the hunter killed his best friend, the albino wolf Bhoot. Having been practicing with the knife, and becoming more immersed in human culture, it is not until he sees his dead friend that he realizes fitting in with his so-called “identity” would mean rejecting his values.

Mowgli chooses to give his allegiance to the Jungle, not to the Village of Man, yet acknowledges his past, embracing it and determining how it fits with his values. He uses the knife to fight Shere Khan but does not embrace the message of the Hunter who gave him the knife. In short, he embraces what Russell Kirk would call “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence,” or, one might say, “wolf existence.”

Acknowledging that one comes from a particular ethnic or religious background or that one’s gender affects one’s life is not an embrace of identity politics. We should instead determine what values will guide us, and hold fast to those, rather than allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever our culture says we should believe based on our gender or the color of our skin.

Movie Review: Instant Family

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.