Instant Family | Sean Anders | November 16, 2018
Family dramedies are a dime a dozen these days, or so it feels. Adding adoption to the mix tends to be relegated to the small screen. However, director Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris bring an amalgam of Anders’ and other adoption stories to the big screen. Anders, mostly known in recent years for his written-and-directed mostly middle-aged comedies (Sex Drive, Horrible Bosses 2, and both of the Daddy’s Home movies, among others), reunites with Mark Wahlberg (among other cast and crew) for Instant Family, inspired by Anders’ own experiences with adopting and raising children.
Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Juliet Naked‘s Rose Byrne) are a 40-something childless California couple in the home renovation/fix & flip small business line of work who decide to give adoption a try after yet another family conversation leads to an offhanded passing comment from Paul that results in Ellie perusing adoption sites. Their adoption journey is overseen by comedic foils Karen (The Shape of Water‘s Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (One Mississippi & In A World‘s Tig Notaro) as part of a mixed group of hopeful parents that includes cast members Iliza Shlesinger and Stranger Things‘ Randy Havens. The adoption center holds an annual fair to pair up kids and parents, which brings Pete and Ellie into contact with Lizzie (Sicario: Day of the Soldado‘s Isabela Moner), a teen who masks her hurt with snark and is close to aging out of the foster care system. Pete and Ellie decide to adopt her, only to find that she comes with two younger siblings – Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gomez). As you can imagine, family and other hijinks ensue during and beyond the holiday trial period as all involved learn what it takes to raise a teen and elementary school kids with little parenting experience.
Even with the adoption plotline, Instant Family follows a familiar pattern when it comes to family and holiday comedies. There are sibling and in-law discussions – nay, arguments – about having kids (not a welcome subject for all), parental/grandparental favoritism, teen friendships and modern dating – even sexting, which leads to two awkward yet well-timed public confrontations, given that teen comedies are leaning more feminist than chauvinist (example: this spring’s Blockers, which was more feminist, consenting, and LGBTQ-friendly than I initially expected). But what the film does well is the family bonding – more so with Pete and Ellie’s immediate family. Sure, The Americans‘ Margo Martindale and Julie Hagerty pop in as their respective mothers Sandy and Jan, but they don’t add as much as the various bonding activities between Pete, Ellie, Lizzie, Juan, and Lita do.
As for the timing and cultural movements, Instant Family has some prescient moments of meta-humor that help and hurt the film. While Wahlberg’s Pete has some awkward analogies that add some laughs, he does make a “white savior” remark when they’re considering adopting Juan and Lita, too, as all the children are Hispanic and both soon-to-be-parents are white. And while not all of the adopting parents in the film are white, the fact that the film chooses to focus on the Wagners rather than the (unfortunately) token gay and half-Black couple (Randy Havens’ Michael and Hampton Fluker’s Kit) is a point against it, as Morgan-Raquel Davis, a seminarian & photographer, found. Hell, there are several groan-worthy name pronunciation moments from one of the grandmothers, to make matters worse.
While Instant Family may not be the best example of an adoption film or the most socially conscious family film, it’s buoyed by a heartwarming family dynamic (that may be a little cloying and predictable toward the end), and it may bring a tear to your eye (a first for a Mark Wahlberg-led film that I can recall). Part of this is thanks to the Wings and George Harrison tracks included in the movie (“Let ’em In” and “What Is Life”). But it doesn’t explain the out-of-the-blue Joan Cusack cameo as a concerned yet lonely neighbor near the end.