Thursday 10 October 2019

Movie Review: Instant Family (2018)

A comedy with dramatic elements, Instant Family explores the complexities of foster parenting through the story of one couple taking on all they can handle.

Married couple Pete and Ellie Wagner (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) flip houses for a living, and have delayed having children. They decide to become foster parents and go through the required screening courses, where they meet social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro). Although initially hopeful of fostering one young child, Pete and Ellie eventually take in 15 year old Lizzy Viara (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings Juan and Lita.

The three kids were raised in harrowing conditions with a drug addicted mother, now in prison. Isabela is surly and cold, unsure why a middle class white couple would take on the hassle of caring for three Hispanic kids. Juan is accident prone and Lita resorts to shrieking to get whatever she wants. Pete and Ellie do their best, but the road to learning instant parenting is bumpy. And once the children's mother finishes her sentence and cleans up, their challenges multiply.

Inspired by director and co-writer Sean Ander's real-life story of adopting three siblings, Instant Family is a sweet family-friendly comedy. The mix of laughs and serious incidents is well calibrated, and although the march towards a happy ending is assured, enough ups and downs happen along the way to maintain interest.

Moments of doubts, setbacks and accidents mix easily with cute silliness involving bathroom use, finding new routines and public temper tantrums. Pete and Ellie have to learn on the job what it means to support each other through the parenting obstacle course, all while under the judgmental gaze of the deeply sceptical Lizzy. She is mostly passing time until her mom is released and recovered enough to regain custody of the kids, and has no interest in establishing emotional connections with yet another set of temporary caregivers.

In addition to extending the film to close to two hours, Anders does overcook a few scenes in search of cheaper laughs. In the most egregious, Lizzy gets involved in a sexting debacle with a sleazy school janitor, leading Pete and Ellie to perpetrate two assaults within five minutes while abandoning Juan and Lita in the car, in a fine example of how not to parent.

In the middle of the learn-on-the-fly turmoil Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne make for an appealing pair, both quickly comfortable as a couple and leaning on their understated comic timing to project less-is-more humour. Isabela Moner excels as Lizzy and steals every scene she is in with a sassy performance of passive-aggressive teen angst justified by deep insecurities.

In support Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer provide a social worker twist on good cop / bad cop, here Notaro's properly by-the-book version of fostering bounced off against Spencer's warts-and-all colour commentary about how it really works. Surviving an Instant Family requires deep-seated belief in the ideal, and imperfect navigation of the real.

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