Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Production Company: Closest To The Hole Productions
Director: Sean Anders
Producers: Sean Anders, Stephen Levinson, John Morris and Mark Wahlberg
Scriptwriters: Sean Anders and John Morris
Main Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Joselin Reyes, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty and Octavia Spencer
Released: February 15 2019
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Instant Family, based on a true story, tells the tale of a married couple in their 30s (Pete Wagner, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his wife Ellie, played by Rose Byrne) who, after some teasing from relatives about their lack of children, start to consider the possibility of adopting. After attending a foster parents course, they remain sceptical, but hearing the stories of how children without parents have struggled, and also how they have made something of their lives once they were fostered, convinces them to move forward. They attend a fair which almost acts as a demonstration for those up for adoption, and while they are there, Pete and Ellie have a run-in with 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner). The couple choose to adopt her, along with her young brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and her younger sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz).
All seems well at first for the Wagner family, so much so that they are almost taunted by other aspiring fosterers for having a good start. Funnily enough, it’s during Christmas dinner when things take a turn for the worse, as they realise how demanding Lita could be (as well as how much she will scream if she doesn’t get her own way) and how clumsy Juan can be. Lizzy, meanwhile, seems disinterested in establishing a connection with her new parents, all of which makes the next few months very rocky indeed for Pete and Ellie. They start to reverse that trend with the youngest two children, who even begin to call them “Dad” and “Mum”. But Lizzy remains unimpressed, intending to do her own thing regardless, partly because she essentially served as a mother figure for Juan and Lita beforehand.
Pete and Ellie continue to work on developing a bond with Lizzy, and they face significant pushback at almost every corner. Over time, though, Lizzy does start to warm to her foster parents, and there is a real chance of the family dynamic succeeding. But things start to go in the opposite direction when Lizzy and kids meet their original mother Carla (Joselin Reyes) for the first time since she was released from prison a few months earlier. It’s clear that things have changed, especially since Lizzy is making it clear that she wants to be with her real mum. From there, it becomes a case of how Pete and Ellie can keep things positive between the five of them, and ultimately if they can retain fostership of Lizzy, Juan and Lita at all.
This is described as a comedy, and there are definitely some choice moments of mirth, especially in the early part of the film. What I would say is that it slowly develops into an on-the-knuckle drama, one that not only has real emotion, but also tackles some pretty heavy subject matters for a film that is rated 12A by the BBFC. The upshot is that it almost feels like two films in one: what is seemingly a light-hearted, by-the-numbers comedy movie about the adoptive family that has to overcome various obstacles can also be accurately described as an on-the-knuckle glimpse into life as foster parents and also foster children, with the real issues of being moved away from birth parents to new carers being demonstrated, even in situations where the adoptive mother and father are willing to do everything possible to make things work.
That all being said, the story told here was logical, at times quite powerful, and it’s hard not to feel the struggles that these characters are going through and experiencing, especially Lizzy who is by far the most impacted child of the three taken on by Pete and Ellie. There are just enough comedy capers and hilarious one-liners to remind us that the plot has an amusing touch to it, but you are far more likely to come away from this feeling touched, moved, perhaps wiping away a tear or two. Anybody watching this movie who has adopted children, or maybe even been adopted themselves, will definitely be able to closely understand what is transpiring on-screen. It’s also wise viewing for anybody who is considering adopting kids in the future (incidentally, the film ends with an online link that provides guidance for potential fosterers).
To sum this movie up, Instant Family is not what I expected, and it may not be to everybody’s tastes if you’re expecting a feel-good comedy. But it is a very strong story that is well-acted by the cast members (Isabela Moner does a hell of a job as Lizzy), and will be more than relatable to viewers who have been in foster care in the past. In short, I would recommend checking out Instant Family, but prepare to be moved by what you see.
Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good