“Instant Family” was one of the biggest surprises of 2018 for me. It seemed like a goofy vehicle for Mark Wahlberg to soften his image at the time, but it surprisingly ends up being one of the best drama comedies of the year. It’s not only such a funny and sweet film, but it’s also a remarkable testament to how much society under values and under appreciates foster parents, and the good they can do for children. While imperfect at times, director Sean Anders approaches the tale of the foster family with immense respect, and delivers a film that really did have me laughing, crying, and ultimately satisfied.
Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play Pete and Ellie, a married pair of house flippers that suddenly feel like they need a lot more in their life. When they decide they want to adopt a child to add more of a purpose in their very fast paced personal lives, they get more than they realize. After meeting rebellious Lizzy a foster family barbecue, they decide to try their hand at adopting her and raising an older child. But they learn she’s actually attached to a younger brother and sister she refuses to leave. Deciding to adopt the three children, Pete and Ellie learn that their ideal picture of raising children is much more emotionally taxing than they could possibly handle.
Sean Anders’ “Instant Family” is a surprising and often compelling drama comedy that focuses on the obstacles and benefits of being an adoptive parent. In the process, the writer also explores the beginning of an unlikely family unit in a society that doesn’t have any specific image about what constitutes a family anymore. Pete and Ellie are very empathetic characters, and the moment they realize parenting is as much a taxing job as it is a reward experience, Anders is able to balance moving drama and hilarious comedy. I was bowled over with how well the comedy and drama evened out, as we’re able to laugh through their evident pain and stress quite often. “Instant Family” watches like a tribute to the foster family, delving in to the benefits more than making light of a mismatched group of people struggling to live together. There’s so much room to turn “Instant Family” in to an exploitative mess, but it’s consistently engaging with often layered and complex characters.
This includes Pete and Ellie, both of whom have the best intentions when they seek to adopt a child; Wahlberg and Byrne have great chemistry on screen and Byrne is able to carry much of the film, especially considering Wahlberg’s turn here leaves much to be desired. Isabela Moner also works well off of the stars, portraying a hard boiled character more afraid of being vulnerable than she is never finding a real family. When “Instant Family” focuses on Pete and Ellie adjusting to family life and working hard to win over Lizzy and convince her that they’re the family she needs, “Instant Family” is quite touching and occasionally emotional.
The film is held back though by a interludes involving group therapy for foster parents that are never quite as funny as the writer probably intended, even with the advantage of Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer. Often times it stopped the film’s momentum to a grinding halt. I was also baffled by the whole pointless sub-plot involving the foster mom within the group seeking to adopt a minority child for the sake of creating a star athlete. I’d also love to know why Joan Cusack inexplicably appears in a brief walk on role. That said, “Instant Family” is a wonderful family film that gets better with repeated viewing. It’s that kind of life affirming family film we need more of.