By: Steve Pulaski
The best thing I can say about Instant Family — the initially dubious film from the same man who brought us That's My Boy and not one, but two Daddy's Home films — is that it's hyper-aware of its genre's trappings. It admits early on that it's a retread of a (white) savior story, and concedes that there is often an ego tied to adoptive parents in America. But its willingness to recognize such integral elements of its story and the larger adoption process so swiftly allows its authentic, wholesome colors to shine bright thereafter, in turn giving audiences a delightful surprise just in time for the holiday season. This is an endearingly sensitive family drama with a lot of laughs and poise — the kind of film I never tire of seeing.
As noted, director Sean Anders has predicated much of his directorial career on the comic formula of adults behaving like children. I was no fan of the aforementioned films, but from the first 15 minutes of Instant Family, I could tell something was different. You could credibly say this film is a natural progression of Anders' filmography. Eventually, we all have to grow up and come of age, and once his latest gets its juvenile bits out of the way, it successfully steers itself on a track that meshes laugh-out-loud, occasionally ribald humor with human interest. The fact that Anders and co-writer John Morris not only attempt but smoothly integrate the heartbreaking experiences and emotions of foster children show their sincerity in handling the subject, and that goes a long way, especially since we're in it, by comedy standards, for the long haul at 120 minutes.
The film immediately introduces us to Pete and Ellie, played enthusiastically by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, a married couple approaching middle-age who have become so invested in their house-flipping ventures that they've put the idea of having children on the back burner. When they finally address the matter — or, rather, are forced to by off-handed comments by Ellie's sister (Allyn Rachel) and her husband (Tom Segura) — they decide to take the adoption route and look into foster children at a local agency run by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer in two spectacular supporting performances.
The ladies guide the eager though clueless couple through the adoption process, which leads them to meet a trio of young children, whose rocky homelife has left them as ostensible candidates to become perpetually stuck in foster homes until they reach adulthood. They are Lita (Julianna Gamiz), the littlest who is incessant with her temper-tantrums and getting her way, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz, Peppermint), the overly-apologetic, accident-prone middle-child, and the oldest is Lizzy (Isabela Moner, who we'll see take on the role of Dora the Explorer in next year's film adaptation), the 15-year-old big sister who has also had to act as the mother-figure to Lita and Juan due to her birth mother's drug addiction. Each child proves challenging for Pete and Ellie to care for, but Lizzy is particularly difficult due to her conflicting desire for love and warmth yet her knee-jerk reaction to discard it whenever it's offered by the well-meaning couple.
We follow this newfound family dynamic through the eyes of Pete and Ellie, who desperately try to open their home and offer the children a sanctuary they've never had before, but the unconditional affection overwhelms them, as does the idea of readjusting to new routines (we don't even get to see what school has in store for them). Anders and Morris take their time, moving at a measured pace that allows us to get to know these five family-members as individuals even as the antics and drama unfold. And there is no shortage of either.
One of the many impressive details about Instant Family is just how human everyone feels, thanks to strong writing and performances. Pete and Ellie, from the jump, are not perfect individuals, and following a hellish evening with the children, even discuss "returning" them (they joke but we can tell they are serious if only for a micro-second). The children, too, have their own shortcomings, but no one is chastised into being the conventional bad apple. All three have had a flighty, never-wracking life that has grown them up too quickly, and Lizzy is old enough to understand the stigma they all bring. An early plot-point notes how Lizzy being a teenager makes her even less likely to be adopted, not to mention the fact that she is a "package deal" with two younger siblings which, as Notaro puts it, means that parents looking to adopt must consider "upgrading" their initial plan of just adopting one child. The commodification of foster children along with the language employed to either minimize their experiences or shun them for their age takes aim at a system that's not only overcrowded but inherently disadvantaging.
Instant Family does have many sentimental moments, the likes of which I'm usually quick to blast as manipulative slop because it often cheapens the natural impact of films like this. However, the film earns the tears it will produce from audiences because it works to get them by showing the negative in conjunction to the positive. Its grand, emotional set-pieces largely work because we've come to know the characters so well. Rather than heighten the orchestration, Instant Family finds the heart in most of its scenes, whether that be through a messy compromise, a much-needed trip for Pete and Lizzy to let off steam by destroying a portion of a house-in-rehab, or a well-earned group-hug between them all. This is a film that doesn't just navigate pitfalls, but instead makes it a priority to stop, recognize them, and then tactically avoid them by doubling-down and taking the more challenging approach from a writing perspective. Other films of the genre (and Anders' future endeavors) should break out a notepad.