Beware: ‘Instant Family’ just might give you feels

by Kate Walz on November 15, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

If you market your movie as “feel-good,” you guarantee I will only watch it under duress on an airplane when there are no other functioning options and I can’t sleep.

If your movie features a comedic kick to the balls, or a star of the movie singing a song over the credits (when it’s not a musical), I am filled with disdain. For the most part, I also recoil at “feels” or anything described as “heartfelt.” Keep your emotional porn, and your ridiculous love of montages, and pass me the dark and twisty.

So I am as surprised as anyone: I kind of liked Instant Family, written and directed by Sean Anders. It is guilty of including all of the above, and it’s full of other movie tropes that I hate, but the truth and heart of the film help to make it much more interesting and funny.

Anders was inspired to write the film after he and his wife fostered and adopted three siblings. The movie follows very white, very middle-class couple Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) as they decide to foster three kids. And that’s the biggest thing this movie has going for it – championing the story of foster kids and the people who love them from the perspective of someone who has done it.

Instant Family shows the less-than-supportive way a family may react when you tell them you want to foster three children. It also takes a more realistic look than expected at the behavior problems, and the long term trauma some of these kids are dealing with. The cast and Anders take this realism seriously, to the credit of the movie.

The moments that are funniest and resonate the most are unique, perhaps coming from Anders’ family experience. These moments are charming and heartbreaking. The script comes to life when the characters are refreshingly, unattractively honest.

Unfortunately, those scenes are often pushed too far into the absurd, forcing naturally funny moments past realism for the cheap joke (and the support group scenes are brutal in their phoniness and forced laughter). But the movie does well in not forcing the moments where the main characters connect – even while reveling in it’s own cheesiness. 

And it really does – from fully embracing power ballads to it’s gleeful use of montages, this movie is unabashedly here to make you feel things – to feel things for kids lost in the system, a system that is unfair and not perfect, and this movie doesn’t pretend it’s anything but.

The weaknesses lie in the familiar. Pete and Ellie are utterly boring Chip and Joanna Gaines devotees (can we burn all the shiplap? For America?) playing exactly the characters you think they are. Byrne is a phenomenal dramatic actress with comedic chops. She more than held her own in Bridesmaids. But I need this frantic, neurotic for-funsies shit to stop with her.  And you’ve definitely seen Wahlberg play this role before.

Tig Nataro and Octavia Spencer steal the entire movie as social workers helping new foster parents navigate the system while playing off each other with perfect comedic chemistry and timing. If nothing else, this unexpected match-up is worth the price of admission. 

The children in the movie are also well-cast, and well-written. The often cheap laughs that accompany children in movies are avoided. Gustavo Quiroz, plays Juan, a kid who is used to being kicked while he’s down, and Quiroz shows a real knack for physical comedy. Julianna Gamiz is heartbreaking as Lita – too little to know better, and barely able to process the changes in her world.

Isabela Moner plays oldest sis Lizzie with real grit and emotion. The role has no surprises, but Moner holds her own and makes a cardboard character as multi-dimensional as she can.

You know how this story is going to end, regardless of the emotional yanks along the way. I wonder if the movie would have been better if Anders had just made a biopic, rather than refashioning it into a formulaic comedy. The glimmers of dark comedy and truth that thread throughout the movie help it stand out from all the other product placement-filled holiday feel-good flicks, but can’t rescue it entirely.  

Kate Walz

Kate is a digital advertising ninja by day, but a content-consuming pop-culture nerd always. Her top 5 movies are: The Philadelphia Story, The Master, The Fountain, What About Bob and The Departed.

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