In the world of film, adoption has taken on many faces; Superman, Stitch, Adam Sandler and Sandra Bullock, to name a few. But amidst cinematic necessities, rarely is the more gruelling tapestry of the process captured. Instant Family makes an effort to buck the trend though, shining a positive, honest light on the rambunctious ups and downs of foster parenting, healthily sanitizing the harshest lows to make it a treat for anyone.
Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are perfectly well off. With a flourishing renovation business, they’re both busy and relaxed. But after pangs of guilt spark discussions of children, they stumble into foster parenting. Hoping for one small child, they end up taking in three siblings; teenage toughie Lizzy (Isabela Moner), constantly anxious Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and the volatile tempered Lita (Julianna Gamiz).
The story hasn’t appeared out of thin air; it’s actually based on director Sean Anders’ experiences of adopting three children with his wife. Naturally, there are moments super-heightened for laughs and dramatic weight – but you can feel the guide of reality steering the movie in believable ways. The film opens with an energetic pace, skimming over our central couple’s relationship to make way for the meatier stuff. Already you’re put at ease by the simple but very assured direction (assisted by Brett Pawlak’s homebrewed eye); not particularly bold, but effective with zippy, chipper transitions.
Anders and co-writer John Morris orchestrate Pete and Ellie’s introduction to the system, and eventually Lizzy, with honesty and some really funny mishaps. In the first meeting with the agency (led by Tig Notaro and an infectiously loose and riley Octavia Spencer), caricatures and expected couple’s pop up – there’s the extremely Christian pair who have to deal with a Satanic child, a gay couple whose polar personalities bounce of each other hilariously, and a sporty middle-aged white woman who exclusively wants an African American child to raise (“That’s the plot of The Blind Side!” Ellie exclaims; a truly brilliant gag which is sadly milked for all its worth).
When the three children are all finally in their new home, it’s mostly a journey of well-formed comic set-ups with unprejudiced commentary on the experience of trying to raise kids who aren’t quite your own. In this regard, the young performers really bring this quandary home; Quiroz and Gamiz pull off the more immature turns, whether it’s screaming over a Barbie or dropping a nail gun, but it’s Moner whose afforded the serious emotion. The film’s most tear-jerking moments usually revolve around her heart-aching response to the background resentment of being left alone – although the script sends her character veering heavy-handedly between moods, the performance here is quite strong.
Byrne’s bemused internal fumbling and occasional outward frustration really captures their mammoth undertaking too – coming from sillier comedies like Bad Neighbours to gentler efforts is a showcase for her poignant emotional range. Even Wahlberg is excellent, a role which doesn’t ask too much of him but to channel paternal love and testosterone. It’s easily his best work since 2010’s The Fighter; more genuine, less showy, still carrying that little charm through a different kind of true story (there’s no exploding oil rigs this time). They’re both more reserved but share a fiery chemistry, tapping into their respective comedic work to let the slapstick shine but never being afraid to become more earnest and compassionate when required.
The energy that flows through the family makes every uplifting “daddy” or “mommy” all the more affecting. Even certain questionable plot threads have a mighty cathartic release (hint, it starts with Pete screaming: “A 15-year-old should never be naked, ever!”). You can’t help but feel enamoured by its happy-go-lucky feel, reinforced more by Michael Andrews’ breezy, almost Ferris Bueller-esque composition; both airy and poppy. While the running time stretches out just a little too much and some jokes don’t feel as natural as others, Anders’ endless optimism takes over in a film that, honestly, not many really expected to be such a success. Any moment of gooey schmaltz by the end feels completely earned, triggering a flutter of the heart rather than a roll of the eyes – including a near sinful use of Starship.
An instant delight for all the family that shamelessly warms the heart, while having something positive and honest to say about, what can be, a nightmarish process for aspiring parents and lonely children.
Directed by: Sean Anders
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro