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Instant Comedy Formula

Mark Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg
Paramount Pictures
 118 Minutes
Directed by: Sean Anders
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne   
Instant Family

There’s no question that the foster care system in this country leaves much to be desired, with too many children being housed until adulthood in conditions that, at best, resemble an overcrowded boarding house, and, at worst, subject them to abuses that are as bad or worse than what they encountered in their actual homes. And there’s also no question that a movie that accurately portrayed this system would not be popular with mainstream holiday movie audiences nor would it likely lead many people to consider fostering. So, it’s no big surprise that Instant Family, director Sean Anders’ re-imagining of his own experiences with his three foster children, has produced a reasonably predictable, feel-good family comedy. What is surprising is that, despite the schmaltz and predictability, the movie actually works most of the time.


The parents of the Instant Family are Pete and Ellie Wagner (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne), a 30-something childless couple who see a flyer of cute children and decide that taking one might fill the void in their lives. After meeting with a couple of family counselors (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro), Mark and Ellie attend an event to enable them to interact with potential foster children. Like most of the other would-be parents there, the couple avoids getting close to the older children until 15-year-old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) calls them out for their apparent hesitancy to be near her and other would-be-foster teens.


Eventually, Pete and Ellie learn that Lizzie comes with an entire family of her own, a klutzy, shy younger brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and a hyperactive, difficult to control sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Lizzie has been mothering her two younger siblings ever since they all were removed from the custody of their junkie mother, and the teenager insists that the three of them go to the same family. After spending some time with the kids, Pete and Ellie agree to take them on.


At first, Pete and Ellie get along well with their new family in what their counselors call the “honeymoon period.” Soon afterward, however, the cracks begin to show, as their foster children act out their personality quirks in more damaging ways. Lita keeps throwing temper tantrums and refusing to eat anything except potato chips. Juan retreats into a shell, apologizes constantly, and manages to shoot himself in the foot with a nail gun. While on a family outing at an amusement park, Lizzie runs off with school friends without telling her foster parents, and then she reacts poorly when she learns she’s grounded. Finally, the kids learn that their mother is now out of jail and in rehab, so they start seeing her again, leading to a custody hearing in which a judge has to decide whether to return the children to their mother or allow Pete and Ellie to adopt them.


 Instant Family is loosely based on the experiences of director and co-screenwriter Sean Anders, who in real life took in and adopted three foster children. I’m not sure how many of the events portrayed in the movie actually took place in one form or another in Anders’ family, but one thing is certain. Namely, if you’ve ever seen a family TV network sitcom at any time since the days of Leave It to Beaver, you’ll find kids pulling just as weird stunts as they do here and wind up butting heads with their parents in the exact same way. The only difference is that the TV sitcom squabbles generally resolve themselves in 30 minutes rather than the nearly two hours it takes in Instant Family. In fact, other than an incident in which Lizzie sends nude selfies to an older boyfriend, every other bit of trouble in which the foster kids find themselves could have come directly from a random Leave It to Beaver script. Compared to what actually goes on in many adoptive families, the “crises” here seem much ado about nothing in most cases.


If the script of Instant Family seems very familiar, so too do the supporting characters. The other potential foster parents in the support group include a Christian couple, a gay couple, and an alpha mom looking to take in a potential jock in a Blind Side scenario, a point noted by the other couples. At home, Ellie has to deal with her ditzy mom (Julie Hagerty) and her hypercompetitive sister (Allyn Rachel), while Pete’s meddlesome but usually correct mother (Margo Martindale) also offers advice. The only thing that’s really noteworthy about all these secondary characters is the lack of a distinctive villain or even a good comic foil. The closest the film comes to an antagonistic character is the alpha mom, and even she becomes part of the support group rather quickly. There is one villainous character in Instant Family, a slacker janitor at Lizzie’s high school who is clearly interested only in her body, but, just as clearly, doesn’t appear to have anything to offer in return that a 15-year-old might find interesting.


But, despite all these aforementioned flaws in the story, Instant Family is enjoyable, in part because the emotion feels genuine instead of manufactured as part of an afterschool special life lesson. Director Anders has assembled an excellent cast here, including his juvenile actors, and they put in solid performances. Rose Byrne has the more demanding role, a woman who is clearly craving validation as a parent that she finds so difficult to get from the foster children. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending, but anyone who doubts what is eventually going to happen is a prime candidate for Grinch school. Plus, the supporting cast puts a lot of zest into their characters.


Instant Family is perhaps the perfect definition of a feel-good family film, but it’s also one that doesn’t leave the audience feeling that they’ve been manipulated into a happy ending of any sort. And, of course, its heart is in the right place, trying to raise awareness of a significant problem in our dependent care system. Plus, a few scenes, like the one shown below, ring true and probably came from Anders’ own experiences. These scenes give Instant Family an impact that rises above what’s in much of the rest of the standard-level script. There are probably much better movies that can be made to dramatize the state if the foster care system, but I won’t be too Scrooge-ish at holiday time. Instant Family is like a can of instant soup, filling enough if you’re not too picky.

In this clip, the children are more interested in the packing boxes than the Christmas presents they received.

Read other reviews of Instant Family: 

Instant Family (2018) on IMDb