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Instant Family

Here’s a pleasant little surprise nobody was expecting.

Instant Family comes to us from co-writer/co-producer/director Sean Anders, he of That’s My Boy and Daddy’s Home infamy. Even better, the film was “inspired by” the true story of a married couple (Pete and Ellie, respectively portrayed by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) who become the foster parents to three siblings (played by Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, and Julianna Gamiz). Hilarity ensues, because of course it does. There’s no way this whole thing couldn’t possibly be more boilerplate. In fact, I have to ask — whose life story did the filmmakers cannibalize to create this generic, half-assed, “inspirational” cash grab…

…Oh. Huh. Wow, that kind of explains a lot, actually.

To be clear, the movie does not start out well. From start to finish, the “comedy” in this movie is primarily comprised of characters yelling at each other over penny-ante bullshit. Pretty much every single character — most especially the impossibly boorish nincompoops in the paper-thin supporting cast — will make a huge dramatic production out of literally anything. From an imperceptible gesture to a case of mistaken identity (Don’t even ask — it’s a long story.), these characters will take absolutely any excuse to argue, ramble, fight, and/or apologize until the goddamn camera runs out of film hard drive space.

But as the movie kept going, I came to a funny little epiphany: This isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. And a crucially important feature, at that.

Above all else, this is a movie about two adults learning how to be foster parents. Of course we have to see their ongoing struggles in adjusting to this new life, because… well, obviously, there would be no conflict without it and we wouldn’t have a movie. But more importantly, the filmmakers didn’t even remotely try to sugar-coat this process of adopting foster kids. This isn’t like going to the pet store, where you go and pick your favorite and everything’s gravy from there. It’s hard enough to be a parent, so try being a parent to kids who come with developmental disabilities and deep-seated traumas even before they spend years in the overcrowded and underfunded foster care system.

Pete and Ellie aren’t saints, their adoptive kids aren’t angels, and I can’t possibly overstate how important that is. The movie shows with crystal clarity that contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take a saint to be a capable foster parent. And even if these broken children of broken systems and broken homes can be problematic with their good days and bad days, that doesn’t mean they’re beyond all hope or that raising them isn’t worth the effort.

Gentle readers, if the movie accomplishes nothing else, expressing that message to the audience would be more than enough.

Of course, there is the whole potential “white savior” angle, as this well-to-do couple might look like a couple of sanctimonious assholes looking to redeem their white guilt or use their adopted brown children as a lifelong “Get Out of Racism Accusations Free Card”. The movie was very smart in addressing this head-on, basically hand-waving it away on the grounds that… well, these kids need parents. And stepping up to provide them with a loving home is doing more to solve the problem than apathy ever will. Moreover, if a couple refuses to adopt on the grounds that these black and Mexican kids born of drugged-up parents are so mentally and physically fucked that they’re beyond saving — and they probably don’t even speak English, anyway — isn’t that something like a million times more racist?

Oh, and by the way, I’m not making any of that up. In one scene (one of the umpteen gazillion shouting matches I was talking about earlier), Pete and Ellie directly confront a supporting character who talks about foster kids in pretty much those exact maliciously ignorant words. This is yet another example of how the film serves to humanize foster families while directly addressing common stereotypes and misconceptions. And all of it rings perfectly true, because… well, the director/co-writer freaking lived it!

Moving on, let’s talk about the kids. Gustavo Quiroz plays Juan, a kid with crippling anxiety who’s physically fragile and scared to death of doing something wrong. Julianna Gamiz plays Lita, a young girl with a nasty habit of throwing temper tantrums. In most other movies, these grade school kids would only get the one gimmick apiece and stay with that through the whole film. As such, I was very impressed to see these kids get solid character arcs. It was genuinely heartwarming to see them learn and grow, especially as their development impacted the other characters in sweet little ways. After all, it must be repeated, these are deeply damaged children working together from a shaky foundation to build a stable family, so even the smallest positive development is a hard-earned achievement.

But of course the most prominent of the kids is the teenage Lizzy, played in a starmaking turn by Isabela Moner. Here’s a girl who’s old enough and smart enough to know the system and how to work around it. She’s got the confidence and the experience to keep her siblings in line, leading pretty much everyone to think that maybe Pete and Ellie are superfluous. God knows that Lizzy doesn’t seem to think her foster parents are necessary — after a lifetime of adults treating her and her kids like luggage, she isn’t even mentally capable of accepting that maybe these two really do want her around. Which brings me to the fact that Lizzy is in fact a teenager, which means that she doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know, making her a potential risk to herself and her siblings if left to her own devices.

I can’t remember the last time (Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, maybe?) I saw a teenage character so smart-mouthed, arrogant, and rude… and yet so vulnerable and sympathetic. I completely understood how anyone could be frustrated with Lizzy, but I never even came close to hating her. I don’t know how Moner pulled that off, but she made it look effortless. Brava.

I would take several rolls of duct tape to pretty much anyone in the supporting cast, but Octavia Spencer is the exception that proves the rule. You want a character who can be funny while also serving as a strong and wise maternal figure? Shit, that’s been paying Spencer’s bills since The Help. It also helps that she’s got solid comedic interplay with Tig Notaro, here serving as the Cogsworth to Spencer’s Lumiere.

Come to think of it, the “Foster Parent Support Group” scenes were a cute little recurring device, helping us to vent some pressure with comic relief as Pete and Ellie did the same with other foster parents. It’s very sweet how the couples and their parenting struggles are played for laughs, but the couples themselves never are. With one exception: October (Iliza Shlesinger), an aggressively Type-A single woman who refuses to adopt anyone but an African-American boy who will grow up into a world-class football player. I kept expecting the character to have a “Come to Jesus” moment in which she realizes — or somebody else finally forces her to see — that she’s being stupid and self-centered, expecting this whole thing to go exactly as she wants it to. Instead, the subplot goes nowhere, which is kind of a waste.

Another noteworthy supporting player is Joselin Reyes, who brings a quiet dignity to what would otherwise be a small and thankless role. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that this performance is a crucial part of what could be the greatest strength of the film: It’s not in what the movie makes fun of, but in what the movie steadfastly refuses to make fun of.

On a miscellaneous note, the pacing is wonderful. It’s genuinely impressive how the filmmakers are able to edit several months of events and character development into two hours. I wasn’t a fan of the sappy soundtrack, though.

Instant Family can be cloying. It can be lazy, unfunny, even obnoxious at times. But I’ll be damned if this movie doesn’t have a great big beating heart to it. Between the sympathetic main cast — most especially Isabela Moner, who steals the whole movie — and the deeply important subject that the filmmakers were clearly so passionate about, this movie absolutely crushes it in all the ways that matter. The highest compliment I can pay this movie is that I could very easily see it inspiring more people to adopt, or at least having a greater appreciation for foster parents and foster kids. It’s a noble mission, and I sincerely hope the filmmakers succeed at it.

If you want a feel-good movie to enjoy with the family, this is your ticket.

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