You may have heard your friends say Instant Family looks like a cute movie. And don't worry, it is. But it's also very jarring and it earns that PG-13 rating. That's largely because the film, from director Sean Anders, does not shy away from the upsetting realities that lead children in to foster care.
Anders told much of his own story in the film. He and his wife adopted three foster kids of their own and could therefore relate to the many awkward and unfortunate incidents between Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) and their three new children. That includes Pete accidentally hitting his new son in the face with a ball on the first day he met him. Yep, Sean did that too.
Instant Family opens with Pete and Ellie feeling as though they're stuck in a rut. After initially rejecting the idea of becoming foster parents, it takes just a few foster classes with Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer to get them pumped about expanding their family. The couple attends an Adoption Fair, all the while noting how strange it is having to "shop" for kids and write down the names of the ones they were interested in. Right away they notice the teenagers are off by themselves - the would be parents at the fair are terrified to approach them. What would they do with a teenager? Sure, they need homes too, but someone else's. It was a subtly heart wrenching scene, yet one that felt all too real.
It was in that group of teens that Pete and Ellie meet Lizzy, a feisty 15-year-old. They immediately take to her, and soon learn she comes with two siblings, Juan and Lita.
Suddenly, Pete and Ellie's house is not so quiet anymore. Juan is accident prone and Lita won't eat anything but potato chips. The former results in a terrifying trip to the hospital and the latter produces temper tantrums. Their biggest issue, though, is with the headstrong Lizzy, who never seems to warm to her new parents, especially Ellie. She breaks curfews, curses, and reminds Ellie every chance she gets that she's not her mom.
That takes us to another very real, very jarring moment: when the three children reunite with their birth mother. Lizzy is of course partial to her mother and tries to reunite the family. But, it is all too obvious that her mother is still doing drugs.
The statistics about foster kids mentioned in the movie were pretty sobering, so I looked them up. Unfortunately, the numbers were not inflated for Hollywood. The ratio of children in foster care face a much higher risk of incarceration. One quarter of them "will become involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving the system," according to studies.
If you hadn't gathered already, Instant Family is not a kid's movie. It approaches topics like drugs and sexual abuse and includes sexting, inappropriate innuendos and even an "f" bomb. Children may not be able to see it yet, but adults can and should.
The film is so jarring because it is so well cast. Everyone fit their roles perfectly. And I mean perfectly, even down to Margo Martindale's portrayal of the fun, sassy grandma.
The film is very funny. It kept the audience laughing for two hours - sometimes almost in tears. But, again, it was interspersed with scenes that never let you forget the seriousness of the topic.
Instant Family is in theaters now.
We give it a: B+