Editor’s note: This is a guest review by David Blackmer.
Full disclosure up front: I’m a foster dad. I went into seeing Instant Family expecting to get emotional, but also knowing any elements that were remotely unrealistic were really going to bother me.
I was pleasantly surprised on both accounts. I didn’t cry non-stop, and I didn’t find glaring differences between the film and reality (although for cinematic purposes, small gaps were present, of course).
Writer/director Sean Anders made this film based on events from his own life, and his familiarity with the foster care system manifests itself throughout. Whether illustrating parental struggles (both foster and biological), unique marital issues, challenges with extended family, or the devastations the innocent children themselves face, this feature focuses on accuracy first, humor second. There are even some nods to the more complex situations in the foster world: complications with courts, LGBTQ parents, etc.
Instant Family follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) as they journey to the decision to adopt children through foster care, then attempt to actually be decent foster parents. They’re sometimes elated, sometimes nervous, sometimes terrified, and rarely unified — just like real parents. They welcome three children (siblings) into their lives, the rebellious teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), the no-looking-before-leaping middle child Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and the temperamental toddler Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Lizzy’s story and interactions with the would-be parents becomes the focus, although the other children are certainly instrumental characters.
The movie also hosts amazing supporting performances from Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer as the social workers who represent the foster care system in all its disjointed glory. In the real world, their roles would be played by a dozen different people, but their diverse personalities (and dialogue) perfectly embody the confusing, oppositional, yet somehow functioning, world of foster care.
When I first got involved in foster care, I felt like Harry Potter discovering a reality, hidden in plain sight, but that I’d never known was there. Instant Family offers a healthy glimpse inside this reality, with a lot of laughs and — maybe — a few tears along the way.