The best thing I can say about Sean Anders’ lovely new movie Instant Family is that it made me consider fostering children, something I had never even begun to consider in my entire life. It’s not that the movie shies away from how hard fostering can be—if anything, the movie leans into the difficulties of fostering. Rather, Instant Family does a public service about the foster system and then packages it in a charming comedy that prevents the story from ever being preachy or mawkish. There’s a surprising amount of bite in Instant Family, but none of it is mean-spirited or at the expense of foster children. It’s a movie where the judgment is reserved for those who take the responsibility of fostering too lightly, and while the film has a glossy Hollywood sheen, it’s deeply earnest about the importance of foster care.
Anders, drawing from his own experience as a foster parent, tells the story of Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), a married couple of home flippers who feel like their lives are in a bit of a rut. When they decide to foster 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner), they discover that Lizzy has two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz), so they take all three kids. While at first it seems like the biggest challenge is Lita only wanting to eat potato chips for all her meals, it soon becomes apparent that all three children, and especially Lizzy, offer monumental challenges for the woefully unprepared Pete and Ellie, who try to muddle their way through parenting as they grow attached to their three new children.
The balance Anders achieves between the heart and humor of his movie is astounding. Instant Family is a hell of a balancing act, seeking to convey the gravity and seriousness of fostering while also constantly weaving in some hard-edged jokes like the recurring foster parent in Pete and Ellie’s support group who wants to adopt an athletic child so she can pull a Blind Side. It also helps when Wahlberg and Bryne have terrific comic chemistry along with an assist from Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro who play workers in the foster care system that try to be honest about the difficulties of fostering kids.
There are plenty of “social issue” movies that hope to simply skate by on a good message, and Instant Family probably could have gotten away with being one of those films. Anders’ motives are pure and personal, and if you want to make a movie about the importance of foster care, it would be hard to argue that such a movie shouldn’t exist. But what’s so admirable about Instant Family is how it takes that message and puts it in a PG-13 family comedy to make it as accessible as possible. It’s also a movie that seems delightfully self-aware when it needs to be self-critical, like when Pete raises the question of him and Ellie acting like white saviors “like in Avatar” and Notaro’s character responds, “Okay, so we’ll just put you down for ‘white kids only’” and Pete and Ellie quickly stop her and say they’re happy to foster Latino children.
Some will likely find that Instant Family is a little too cloying or that it doesn’t go far enough in depicting the hard realities of the foster care system, and those are fair criticisms. When tackling social issues, it’s almost always possible to do better. But to levy those complaints against the film would be to miss how much it’s doing right, and how compelling it can be for an audience that doesn’t mind seeing a light family comedy, but also might be a bit more reluctant to watch a documentary or an indie about the challenges of foster care. By presenting this topic within the comforts of a familiar genre, Anders has found a way to bring light to an important issue that some audience members have never considered.
To learn more about adoption and foster care, click over to InstantFamily.org.