Review: ‘Instant Family’

Movies about foster care and adoption tend to be dramas, which makes sense in that every foster care story is born out of some degree of tragedy, with kids harboring myriad and complex traumas that lend themselves readily to a somber plot.

Yet “Instant Family,” a recently released film that stars Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as a married couple who suddenly find themselves drawn to becoming foster parents, is a comedy. The plot that unfurls when they decide to take in three Hispanic-American siblings — including a feisty 15-year-old named Lizzie — proves to be more funny than heartbreaking, though it sometimes toes the line between the two.

Director and co-writer Sean Anders, who made “Daddy’s Home” and “Daddy’s Home 2,” is no stranger to the world of zany comedy; “Instant Family,” however, is more tempered in its humor, perhaps thanks to Anders’ firsthand experience as a father of seven years to three children that he and his wife adopted from foster care.

Director Sean Anders on the set of Instant Family from Paramount Pictures.

“I think that a lot of people think that there can’t be any laughter around (such a difficult situation), when the reality is that we’re all laughing a lot because you have to,” said Anders, reflecting on why making a comedy that stems from his personal experience with the foster care system made sense to him. “The situation is so awkward and chaotic and crazy, and a lot of funny things happen, particularly in hindsight. Most movies made on this topic tend to really focus on the tragedy and trauma but there’s so much more to the story than that. There are so many wonderful families that come together and there is so much joy and laughter and love.”

Though the movie sometimes falls into a pattern of Hollywood-esque predictability, happy ending and all, it does illuminate some of the anxieties experienced by kids, parents, and social workers alike as they all move through the processes of the foster care system. Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) stumble into the idea of fostering kids and, before they know it, have three new people in their home, working through nightmares to strange eating habits and everything in between in real time.

The chaos that ensues is born of the trials and tribulations of trying to raise three young strangers, and the heartbreak that lives in the peripheral presence of their mother, a previously incarcerated addict.

In order to best capture the complicated nature of these topics, Anders and his team consulted foster families who had adopted teen girls (Maraide Green, one of those girls, went on to be a consultant on the film). Though it lives comfortably in the land of comedy, “Instant Family” is not brainless. It treads carefully around the tragic realities that children in foster care experience while also finding the light in it. It portrays the frustration and awkward confusion that exists between foster kids and foster parents and speaks to the difficulties that inevitably occur when strangers come together to form a family.

Ultimately, Anders hopes that that film can help to change the narrative about foster care in general.

“Once people go on this ride with this family and fall in love with these kids, my hope is that they’ll see kids in foster care differently,” he said. “People do have so much fear and pity when they think of kids in foster care, when in reality they’re just kids. I’m hoping that the movie can make people feel more positively toward the kids in the system in general and of course the families that step up for them.”

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