In future edition of your Funk & Wagnalls the entry for ‘heartfelt’ may well be illustrated with the poster for “Instant Family.” For better and for worse the new Mark Wahlberg film is an earnest and deeply felt look at adoption out of the foster care system.
Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are house flippers Pete and Ellie. Childless, they are forty-somethings with a well-appointed, orderly life. When the subject of kids comes up, raised by Ellie’s sister, Pete worries about being an ”old dad.” He jokes about adopting a five year old so “it will be like I got cracking when I was thirty-six years old.” That one off hand comment triggers something in Ellie who researches the stats on foster kids and is immediately inspired to help by welcoming children into their home. Pete isn’t as sure. “People who take foster kids are special,” he says. “The kind of people who volunteer when it isn’t even a holiday. We’re not that special.” Later, after looking at a website of photos of kids available for adoption he relents. “This is what we do,” he says, “fix things up. We’ll scrape off their emotional popcorn ceiling.”
The couple attend Foster Parent Classes run by social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) and, when at a Child Fair they meet the forceful fifteen-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her siblings, accident prone Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and the sweet but screechy Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Drawn to them, Pete and Ellie knew their “cosmic connection” was much more than a hunch; that this group must somehow form a family. That’s the way we they became, well, not exactly the Brady bunch, but a family with all the good and bad that entails.
There are parts of “Instant Family” that will make you laugh and parts that will make you cry. Then there are the other parts. Director Sean Anders—who, in real life adopted three children from foster care—clearly cares about making a difference with this film. As the writer of “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “We’re the Millers” he’s comfortable with finding humour in situations, and he’s explored family dynamics in as the writer and director of “Daddy’s Home.” Here he adds in a third element, the Public Service Announcement.
Spencer and Notaro are tasked with delivering the cold hard facts and figures that shine a light on the difficulty of children in foster care, and they do the best they can with it, but early on it often feels as though you are reading an informational pamphlet from one of their Foster Parent Classes and not enjoying a family dramedy. Once past that you’re left with a pleasing story of a hard-earned connection between adoptive parents and their new kids.
“Instant Family’s” heart is in the right place and that goodwill goes a long way. The relationship between Wahlberg, Byrne and the kids isn’t all sunshine and roses. They have real problems and work through them by trail and error, sometimes with hilarious results, sometimes not. Either way they feel universal—every parent has had to calm a tantrum in public, etc—even though the story is very specific.