‘Instant Family’ review: Foster parenting on training wheels

Instant Family’ shows an up-close and personal depiction of the American foster care system with big laughs and a humongous heart.

This film deserves the credit alone for taking a sensitive subject matter without turning it into something offensive, problematic or excessively sentimental. While most films tend to over-simplify the adoption process, director/co-writer Sean Anders draws from personal history that will nevertheless resonate to most viewers. Instant Family presents fostering as a worthy undertaking but it never sugarcoats the struggles that goes along with it. It’s one of those feel good comedies that you can wholeheartedly embrace.

In the film, married couple Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are too busy in their home renovation business that they decided to adopt a child – instead of conceiving a baby – to make up for the lost time. Initially half-hearted, they enroll themselves in a fostering crash course and there, they immediately take interest in adopting a charming yet strong-willed, 15 year old Lizzy (Isabela Moner). There’s one caveat though – she comes in a package deal with two younger siblings: a clumsy middle-child Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and a spoiled brat Lita (Julianna Gamiz). You think that the couple’s skills at flipping houses makes them suited for this job of rehabbing troubled kids? Unfortunately, there’s very little correlation between the two. The latter is a way tougher job than it seems.

Gustavo Quiroz (Juan) and Mark Wahlberg (Pete)

Obviously, it’s not an overnight success to make this ‘instant family’ work. As the children struggle to adapt to their new surrounding, the foster parents do damage control with the chaos – food starts to fly over the dinner table and their patience is comically stretched to limits. The main amusement here is to see the couple have their butts handed to them while they voice out their resentment in privacy – the film does not shy away from the taboo stuff that parents don’t dare to say out loud. Wahlberg and Byrne, both proven to be good comic actors, share a great chemistry to make them likable and at the same time, let the audience laugh at their frustrated parenting methods. Together, they share an adorable dynamic with the child actors to completely sell the idea of a dysfunctional family, especially with Moner who displays a fair amount of emotional range for her age.

Rose Byrne (Ellie) and Isabela Moner (Lizzy)

Thankfully, none of the comedy here are purely played for slapstick. The film script’s successfully fleshes out history of emotional and physical abuse reflected in the the children’s behavior. Lita says horrible things that she must have heard/experienced from someone else. Accident prone Juan also has his share of implied traumas, hence his knee-jerk reaction to almost everything is to apologize. While Lizzy is not just some standard rebellious teen but rather a child who is forced to live beyond her years.

Apart from that, even topics on racial dynamics, substance abuse and child predation are aptly tackled for a PG-13 film. The film also exhibits self-awareness of the stigma often associated with this kind of plot (white people with savior complex) by referencing films like Avatar and The Blind Side to humorously describe the similarity of situation at hand.

L-R: Octavia Spencer (Karen), Rose Byrne, Tig Notaro (Sharon), Mark Wahlberg

Elsewhere, there’s a support group story arc to make this film as informational yet entertaining as much as it can be. The foster care scenes are elevated by the buddy comedy act of Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as social workers Karen and Sharon, in what otherwise would’ve been thankless plot device characters.

The heart of Instant Family is in its small moments – like when Pete gets his first “daddy” from Lita or Ellie gets her first “mom” from Juan. The film may not break outside the conventions of a family comedy – one can even call it out as predictable – but it finds an excellent balance in its comedic and dramatic elements. Just when a scene is about to get you in the verge of tears, it pulls out a joke to lighten up the situation, yet the tonal shift never feels awkward.

L-R: Gustavo Quiroz, Rose Byrne, Mark Wahlberg, Julianna Gamiz, Margo Martindale

Instant Family fills your belly with laughs and warms your heart at the same time. In a time where the spirit of family and togetherness is often taken for granted, this film has a heartfelt cause to fight for.

4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Sean Anders and written by Sean Anders and John Morris, ‘Instant Family‘ stars Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Julianna Gamiz, and Octavia Spencer. Run time: 119 minutes.

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