Pete and Ellie have a life that most of us would only dream of. They have a successful and thriving business (flipping houses), a beautiful home and a loving marriage. As great as the life they built is, something is still missing. They are in a self-described “rut” and are looking for something to break them out of it and satisfy that void. This leads them into fostering kids, where they quickly find out that they may have gotten in way over their heads. There isn’t anything inherently groundbreaking about the plot of Instant Family. It’s a feel good family comedy that typically comes out this time of year that shows a family helping someone (usually children) in need that aims to inspire and change things. These films also usually come up short (at least for me) because they feel contrived, disingenuous and emotionally manipulative. While Instant Family may not be overly different in its conception, it is certainly different in its manifestation. This film works, and works so well, because it feels genuine and real.
Authenticity starts with characters. If the characters of a story feel real then everything that goes on involving them will have at least an element of that same feeling. For Instant Family that starts with the couple at the heart of the story, Pete and Ellie played wonderfully by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne. This couple works in every way that you would want a couple to work on screen. You either want to be them, or be friends with them because of how much fun they are. Their chemistry is great, they feel like a real couple that loves each other, which is an important foundation for making the whole thing work. We journey with the couple as they make the decision to foster and then start the process of becoming qualified to foster. It’s in this process that we really get to know the couple and what they are about. They run through the typical emotions that a couple would throughout this process, which is disarming because it’s so easy to picture yourself in their shoes. When they struggle as foster parents it comes across as so real that you can’t help but feel for them. Wahlberg and Byrne were perfectly cast and gave great performances. They bring a heart to the film and keep it grounded in reality.
Just as important to the movies authenticity are the kids that Pete and Ellie foster, Lizzie, Juan and Lita played by Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz. Juan and Lita are well cast and acted because each serves a specific purpose and each does it very well. Juan provides a lot of silly boy humor and Lita brings the sassy cuteness that is typical with that character. The real star of the bunch, and the movie as a whole, is Lizzie. This character made the whole movie for me and went a long way towards making the film as authentic as it is. Lizzie’s arc was larger than anyone else’s and Moner brought incredible charisma that kept evolving throughout. Her growth felt so organic and real, which is a true credit to Moner. She made Lizzie a real person, in every possible way. That allowed the movie to cash in organically on all of the emotional moments because they were earned, mostly through our experience with Lizzie. When Pete and Ellie first meet her, we fall in love with her as quickly as they do. She was a fearless, witty and funny kid that jumped off the screen in a memorable way. As time went on and the layers peeled back she became more complicated and Lizzie became tougher to love. Moner owned this part of the movie and brought a lot of tension because of the pain and burden that she constantly wore on her face. This all came full circle when Lizzie could no longer hold in her emotions and it’s in that moment that Moner shines the most. All of the complicated mess that comes with that character fades and you are left with a scared kid desperate to be loved. Moner is a star and she made this movie exponentially better that it would have been without her.
The last crucial element to Instant Family is the fostering process itself. Movies like this have a tendency to present situations like this through rose-colored glasses. Instant Family never takes that bait. From the beginning, fostering children is shown to be as complicated as it really is. There is specific and intentional time spent with the struggles of fostering children. This is where the performances of Octavia Spencer (Karen) and Tig Notaro (Sharon) come in. They were delightful truth bombs all throughout the movie, constantly reminding us all of the difficulty and importance of fostering. They also pulled wonderful bits of organic humor that were perfect tension breakers. The tough spaces were where Instant Family found most of its humor, which makes it more effective because in real life finding the humor in tough situations is essential to getting through them. Writers Sean Anders (he also directed) and John Morris were able to capture this beautifully without ever sacrificing the overall message of the movie. Instant Family will make you want to foster, make you never want to foster and then make you feel like you have to foster. It is that honesty that makes this movie work so well and makes its message stick.
Instant Family is the perfect movie for this time of year. It’s great for the whole family, it’s funny, and packs a beautiful message. It’s a great movie that will inspire you and most certainly make you cry. Any movie that brings out all of the emotions like this one can has to be seen by as many people as possible. You will fall in love with all of the characters and the family as a whole. Instant Family is the best version of this type of movie and is a definite must-see.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Sean Anders Writers: Sean Anders & John Morris Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro & Tom Segura Release Date: November 16th Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hour and 59 minutes