You could easily be excused for expecting Instant Family to exist squarely in the same cinematic arena as other recent Sean Anders motion pictures such as Adam Sandler's That's My Boy! and the Daddy's Home films.
You would be wrong.
Instant Family is an absolute delight from beginning to end, a not so serious film about a very serious subject, foster parenting, and a film that successfully walks that thin line between silly yet sharp comedy and surprisingly thoughtful dramedy. Inspired by Anders' own experiences adopting three children into his family, Instant Family clearly takes the subject of fostering parenting seriously while also finding the inherent humor and bittersweet moments involved in inviting little strangers into one's home and in somehow finding the laugh till you cry moments with these kids whom you grow to love even when you always know they may leave you and it's gonna' break your heart.
I loved Instant Family.
I loved everything about Instant Family.
I loved Instant Family when it worked. I loved Instant Family when it didn't work, which is fortunately quite rare. I loved how Instant Family made me laugh and I love how Instant Family made me cry.
Yes, it's true. It made me cry.
Instant Family starts off like every other dumb comedy that Sean Anders has made. In fact, it starts off so lamely that you'll find yourself wondering why such heavyweights as Octavia Spencer, Margo Martindale, and even Tig Notaro signed on to the project.
Then, out of nowhere, Instant Family becomes a different kind of film.
Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are a happily married couple who've spent most of their early years of marriage being happily married and building a fledgling business into a successful one. When they buy a five-bedroom fixer-upper, another house for them to flip, suddenly something inside them clicks.
It's not so much a parental instinct, really. It's more like a firm realization that there's something more in life. Suddenly, when friends and family and television shows remind them that there are children in the world without a family.
Suddenly, that seems unfathomable to Pete and Ellie and we believe them. We really, really believe them. Perhaps it's knowing that in real life Wahlberg is a known diehard advocate for the church's responsibility for children who need homes. Perhaps it's because Rose Byrne radiates such a warm maternal instinct that you'll practically want to crawl up into her lap to cuddle.
I don't really know why, but I completely and utterly believed them.
When they decide to travel the fostering parenting journey, hoping to eventually adopt, Pete and Ellie sign up for classes co-led by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, both of whom seem massively under-utilized until you're sitting at the screen sobbing and suddenly realize that they're perfectly utilized.
Instant Family wouldn't be the same film without Notaro and Spencer, their ability to snag emotional gravitas amidst even lowbrow humor proof positive of their remarkable acting talent and of this incredibly rich, complex and layered script co-written by Anders with frequent collaborator John Morris. The same is true of Margo Martindale, who couldn't possibly be in the film enough, but who elicits such warmth and humor as Pete's mom that you'll inevitably want her to be your grandma, too. Julie Hagerty, who will likely always be most associated with the Airplane films, uses her dry, impeccable humor to perfection here as Ellie's less expressive, no less loving mother.
Pete and Ellie initially plan to take only one child into their home, but by the time they meet impossible to place teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) and then learn of her two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz, Peppermint) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz, East Los High), they've not so much fallen in love with the kids as they've fallen into a sense of responsibility to provide what they know they can provide for these adorable yet immensely complex kids.
While Instant Family uses an abundance of humor throughout its just shy of two hour running time, rest assured that Instant Family never makes light of foster parenting or, for that matter, foster children. The lessons arrive almost episodically, Anders bringing us face-to-face with the children who desperately crave affection yet are beyond terrified of it. He doesn't flinch in showing us the ways in which the system can and often does re-victimize these children, either through B.S. institutional bureaucracy or by foster parents who are more consumed by the paycheck than the kids or by the highly traumatizing ways these kids can be re-traumatized by a legal system that demands reunification always be the first and foremost option.
Again, Instant Family makes you laugh and cry.
The kids themselves are incredible. Moner is a scene-stealer, a heart-tugging whose willingness to rebel seemingly knows no bounds and whose aching vulnerability is simply mesmerizing to watch. After watching Moner's work here, I instantly came home to check IMDB because I wanted to watch her over and over again. As the younger siblings, Gustavo Quiroz is equally adorable yet so incredibly desperate to be loved that he apologizes for anything and everything. Julianna Gamiz's Lita is likely what the system would call a "high needs" child, though really what she needs is safety, structure and a whole lot of love.
Instant Family never makes it look easy. In fact, it makes it look kind of unnerving and frightening and risky and it practically makes you want to run up to every foster parent you know and say "Thank you."
While Instant Family occasionally struggles with tonal inconsistencies and a Joan Cusack cameo toward the end feels awkward and unnecessary, the truth is that I loved every moment in the film even as I wiped the tears away from my eyes as the closing credits rolled.
As further proof of the film's serious intentions about foster parenting and adoption, even a visit to the Instant Family website is met more by information on foster parenting and adoption than it is actually information about the film.
Easily Anders' best film in years, Instant Family is a warm, funny, inspired and insightful gem that wants to entertain you but, yeah, it also hopes to inspire you to make your own little difference in the lives of children who need a family.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic