Director: Sean Anders
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Michael O’Keefe
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Mature Content)
Released By: UIP
Official Website: http://www.instantfamily.org
Opening Day: 10 January 2019
Synopsis: When Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) decide to start a family, they stumble into the world of adoption. When they meet a trio of siblings, including a rebellious 15-year-old girl (Isabela Moner), they find themselves unexpectedly speeding from zero to three kids overnight. Now, Pete and Ellie must hilariously try to learn the ropes of instant parenthood in the hopes of becoming a family.
There is nothing funny about the prospects for kids in the foster system, and to its credit, ‘Instant Family’ doesn’t shy from laying these out. But not many people would buy a ticket to a movie which tells you about the 20% who immediately become homeless, or the less than 3% who will earn a college degree by the age of 26, or the 70% of girls who will become pregnant by the age of 21. So as much as it deals with a weighty and often sobering subject, this dramedy directed and co-written by Sean Anders that is inspired by his and his wife’s own adoption story does so with a mix of slapstick and schmaltz.
Reteaming with his ‘Daddy’s Home’ star Mark Wahlberg, Anders channels his own voice through Pete Wagner, who together with Rose Bryne’s Ellie, are a successful house-flipping couple that decide belatedly they’d like to start a family. So to make up for lost time (“It’d be like I got cracking when I was 36,” Pete enthuses), Pete and Ellie hit upon the idea of adoption, and soon find themselves training to be parents in the foster care system. Their course is led by two caseworkers played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, and besides providing some spot-on deadpan humour during these sessions, the well-paired duo will also turn up every now and then to share some encouraging words of wisdom especially when things get rough.
Certainly, you should expect nothing less of Pete and Ellie’s parenting journey, which takes off with not one, not two, but three Hispanic kids – the rebellious teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), the klutzy middle-child Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and the button-cute little sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Things go swimmingly well at first, but the family honeymoon doesn’t last long. Lita gets into a furious meltdown when told she is not allowed to eat chips for dinner, while Juan collapses into tears at the slightest mishap, but nothing quite compares to Lizzy’s recalcitrant ways. Not only does she rebuff Pete and Ellie’s acts of care and concern, she also unabashedly manipulates those around them to get her way, especially Pete’s nosy and intrusive mother Grandma Sandy (Margo Martindale).
As much as the film resorts to the usual pratfalls and laughs, it gets surprisingly real and heartfelt exploring the challenges of adopting out of the foster care system. Being the oldest of the lot, Lizzie is the natural candidate to channel these issues, and it is through her emotional trajectory that we feel the angst, cynicism and frustration of someone who has been in and out of foster homes, as well as the hope, however misplaced, of being reunited one day with his or her biological parents. It isn’t just Lizzie who must come to terms with the realities of her current situation; just as much, Pete and Ellie will have to re-examine their own motivations for choosing to adopt in the first place, in particular whether their decision to do so was ultimately just so they could feel good about themselves.
Quite frankly, we did not expect the level of earnest drama that the movie served, or for that matter the fully felt presence by Moner that keenly captures the experience of a kid forced to live beyond her years. Wahlberg and Bryne have great chemistry as a married couple who get more than what they bargained for, but it is the former Nickelodeon star Moner who steals the show from both her veteran leads. Both the script’s refreshing honesty and the cast’s sincere performances combine to make the inevitable happy ending a lot more poignant than you’re probably expecting, underscoring how happiness in such foster families is always hard-won and often borne out of sheer perseverance.
There’s no doubt that this was meant to be feel-good stuff for the holiday season, but you’ll find in ‘Instant Family’ a deservedly uplifting comedy that is packed with just the right combination of laughs and sniffles. It is surely winning all right, and it gets there without shying away from portraying the ups and downs of foster parenting. It isn’t even afraid to touch on adolescent issues like sexual abuse, without delving into the details or depicting it graphically. So even if it does end on a cornball cheesy note with Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, you’re more than likely to fall for it hook line and sinker, especially for its heart-warming re-affirmation of the fundamental quality of love at the very centre of any and every family.
(Packed with the right combination of laughs and sniffles, 'Instant Family' doesn't shy away from the challenges of foster parenting, even as it is intended to be feel-good holiday viewing)
Review by Gabriel Chong