Instant Family sees writer-director Sean Anders finally finding the sweet spot between hijinks and sentimentality, all helped by a personal touch and a cast that holds the material up.
Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), a happily married couple, are constantly pressed by friends and family about why they have no kids. It’s something they have not been serious about, but a certain curiosity and longing for a whole family drives them to a decision to have kids. They decide, mostly based on their age, to adopt a child through the foster system. With the help of social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro), they meet and plan to adopt rebellious teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner). However, she also comes with two siblings, her brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and little sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz). But when Pete and Ellie bring the children home, they find that parenting is a whole other adventure. Lizzy’s rebellious nature has her lashing out and starting an inappropriate relationship in high school. Juan is riddled with anxiety, constantly making mistakes and apologizing. Lita is an out-of-control little kid who makes messes and always screams. It proves to be more than either Pete or Ellie can bear. Sometimes, it seems that Pete’s mother Sandy (Margo Martindale) is a better parent. But, their attitudes change as they grow to bond with the kids, and especially when their real mother is released from jail, and wants her children back.
Instant Family has what no other Sean Anders movie has had before: real people facing real problems. The film is based on Anders’ own experience as the adoptive father of foster children. Therefore, there is a connection to the material he has that elevates a lot of what is seen on screen. Gone is the raucous, yet forced comedy of That’s My Boy and Horrible Bosses 2, as well as the uneasy sentimentality of both Daddy’s Home movies. Instead, he manages to introduce slapstick and great one-liners, yet also emotion that feels real. There is not a moment where the emotion doesn’t feel earned. The dialogue between the parents and the children seems to come from a personal place, and Anders has to be commended for that. He also brings to light the process of the adoption system, and the complicated situations that see children put in that system.
Anders is aided by a cast that feels as connected to the material as he does. Wahlberg and Byrne not only have great chemistry with each other, but also manage to bring an easy sense of welcome with their individual performances. They also have great chemistry with their on-screen children. In particular, Moner is able to balance the fine line between being a teenage brat and a sensitive human feeling lost in a world she thinks has abandoned her and her siblings. She is very much a star in the making. Spencer and Notaro also add to the feel-good nature of the film. And no warm-feeling film is complete without the warm presence of Martindale.
Instant Family may not be the most inventive mix of comedy and emotion. There are certain slapstick moments that can fall flat. But its good intentions and admirable execution make it a comedy that will have you thinking and feeling as much as it will have you laughing. | Bill Loellke