Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Instant Family” (2018)

Based on director Sean Anders’ own experiences with adoption, Instant Family stars Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as married couple and house fixer-uppers Pete and Ellie Wagner who decide that the time has come to have a child of their own, choosing to foster a child after Ellie finds out that there are many children from broken homes who need proper care and affection, but when they decide on taking in spirited and outspoken teenager Lizzie (Isabela Moner), they learn that they’re also compelled to foster her two younger siblings. Things get off to a promising start but after the “honeymoon period” ends, Pete and Ellie struggle to cope with Lizzie’s difficult, stubborn behaviour, as well as her siblings’ rambunctious ways, and they eventually have to deal with the possibility of the kids going back to their own mother, a recovering addict.

Mondays are generally a time for me to see a brand new release at the cinema and this time, I essentially had the choice between The Kid Who Would be King, On the Basis of Sex and this. With all three films receiving more or less the same critical reception, I decided that TKWWBK would probably be too kid-friendly and OTBOS would be too dry so IF Instant Family would probably strike a happy medium, though I was fully expecting an average but forgettable studio comedy.

Well, I think that I made the right choice because Instant Family was a very pleasant surprise; though not exactly hilarious, it was an affectionately funny film with a sweet and warm heart, often getting me really emotional (a rare thing when a film accomplishes that) as it dealt with its meaningful subject matter.

Looking at said subject matter, Instant Family is primarily about foster care and, to my knowledge, this is something that hasn’t really been talked about in mainstream cinema before, though adoption certainly has been. It’s apparent that telling a story all about fostering is something that means a lot to co-writer/director Sean Anders, having been through it himself, and Instant Family looks at the topic with genuine feeling and warmth, getting the message across that a great many children need a good home and stability and, although some scenes are sugarcoated and “Hollywoodised”, the film does well in exploring the extreme highs and lows that come with foster care, saying that it’s not always easy, that there will be hurt feelings, disappointment and heartbreak along the way, but in the best cases, at risk children may very well end up in loving homes, under the parenthood of some wonderful people in many different circumstances.

The film also subverts expectations somewhat by examining the misconceptions about foster care, broken homes and abusive childhoods some people may have because when you hear of young people with parents who perhaps use drugs or drink excessively, you may form a certain horrific image in your mind but certain characters in this film are surprised to learn that the kids and the “unfit” parents actually appear relatively normal, contrary to what they they believed they would be like. Clearly, the filmmakers want to paint an accurate portrayal of the world of foster families, tearing down any preconceived notions some may have and showing how complicated these things can be; in a third act development, we even see that an inspirational “success story” is not all that it first appeared.

Rather than the “average but forgettable” vibe that some of the film’s marketing has put out there, Instant Family has a very decent mix of both comedy and drama; though it’s not exactly a laugh riot and it occasionally includes a few hijinks that are typical of a studio comedy, it’s a funny film and much of the dialogue and physical business will surely coax a smile or two out of the viewer. But it’s in the dramatic scenes where Instant Family shines because through the commited and emotional performances of its central cast, as well as its genuinely well meaning script, the emotional scenes really hit hard and there are some moments when you’re unsure of whether it will all work out or not; as you get to know these characters, you really care about what happens to them and if you’re fully on board, then the dramatic scenes will leave you with a tear in your eye. As it did for me!

However on the flip side, the film ends with a disappointing ending that is tacked on, unrealistic and far too sugar sweet, ending things with several “trailer worthy” lines and a Hollywoodised ending all set to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – quite incompatible with the rest of the film and slightly undermining what has come before.

The central cast is a lively bunch and all contribute to making Instant Family such a warm, family friendly outing. Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne share some believable and charming chemistry, both dishing out the comedy like troopers and also proving themselves adept with the hard hitting moments as well; Wahlberg’s character often says some inappropriate and slightly insensitive things but gradually learns how to be a good dad and Rose Byrne’s Ellie attempts to be “the nice one” but soon starts to buckle under the pressure, losing her cool as the film goes on.

As Lizzie, Isabela Moner is really something special; after having impressed with her notable turn in Sicario: Day of the Soldado (though that script didn’t do her many favours), she yet again plays a spirited, rebellious, tearaway teenager and although she can act like an unreasonable brat sometimes, she’s never insufferable and it’s clear that there’s a good person underneath her misfit exterior, one who carries a lot of pain and who cares greatly about her two siblings. Moner proves herself to be a very impressive young actress and in Instant Family, she gives a finely tuned and thoroughly natural performance full of empathy, confidence and spirit. And she sings the closing credit song, so that’s cool.

As the other two kids, young Julianna Gamiz proves to be talented lil’ actress and Gustavo Quiroz is alright as Juan but he looks a little out of place, his go-to expression is “wide-eyed and startled” and the parts of the script where he constantly hurts himself, though played for laughs, are very awkward, Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro provide the ideal blend of humour and heart as the foster service employees, and Character Actress Margo Martindale steals all the scenes that she’s in as Grandma Sandy – a real live wire of a character whose energy and loud personality energizes the film quite wonderfully.

A warm, sweet, humorous and very well-intentioned film with a great cast; it clearly cares about its subject matter and the emotional scenes really hit hard.

★ ★ ★ ★

3 comments

  1. Great review! I managed to catch an early preview of this when not much else was on. I’m glad I did because I was tempted to skip it all together. It’s such a heart warming story! I think the trailer tries to emphasize the comedy element too much.

    Liked by 1 person

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