Hurt Meets Hope: Review of “Instant Family”

Shreya Ramachandran, Reporter

The perception of foster care has mostly been skewed and exaggerated throughout entertainment industry, with only a few exceptions. Films like “Annie,” “Hotel for Dogs,” and “The Blind Side” portray children who jump from home to home, are in the care of neglectful and avaricious foster parents, and are troubled and traumatized. Although these stereotypes hold a grain of truth, they are often twisted and incomplete when displayed on the big screen.

As a former foster child who was adopted, my experience was far from these stereotypes. I could argue that my situation was unique, but I could also argue that every foster situation is unique and the stereotypes only enforce false and negative beliefs. An exception to this was the 2018 film, “Instant Family,” in which these stereotypes are not denied, but foster care in its entirety is displayed from all angles and perspectives, allowing the viewer to get a humorous and heartwarming perception of the beauty of an instant family.

Based on a true story, “Instant Family” begins with a married couple that didn’t have children early on and is contemplating this next step. Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) seek to adopt through foster care when they realize there is something missing in their marriage. They find themselves emotionally convicted by the great need for foster parents and soon enroll in fostering classes led by two social workers (Tig Notario and Octavia Spencer). When attending a fair to meet potential foster kids, Lizzie (Isabela Moner) makes an impression on the Wagners and they consider taking her and her two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz), despite the fact that she is a teenager and most foster parents shy away from teens.

Thus the emotional rollercoaster of parenthood begins. Pete and Ellie face tantrums, injuries, and teenage rebellion. Family members get involved and the Wagners see how grandparents and relatives have very different parenting styles. They attend a support group throughout their journey, a place where they laugh and share their experiences. However, as their fondness for the children develops, so does Lizzie’s desire to reach out to her mom. The Wagners face a question that many foster parents have to face: will this be an adoption or reunification process?

In the past decade, Mark Wahlberg has been in several comedies such as “The Other Guys,” “Daddy’s Home,” and “Ted.” Wahlberg was one of the producers of this film. Isabela Moner, playing Lizzie, has worked with Wahlberg before, in the film “Transformers: The Last Night” in which she played Izabella, an orphan in Chicago. Wahlberg develops his character from a fun and cool foster dad to a caring and respected father who values the future of his children. We see the change occur in him as he grows more intimate with the kids and helps them express their feelings. Moner portrays a stereotypical teen on the surface, but throughout the movie reveals a sad reality: many foster children are hurting, fleeing, or protecting themselves and their siblings. Rose Byrne established her comedic role in 2011 in “Bridesmaids” and since has been in a number of comedy-dramas such as “Annie,” “Peter Rabbit,” and “The Meddler.” Rose Byrne brings the audience into the mind of a foster parent. She displays compassion and tenderness on the big screen, but also doesn’t deny the reality of doubt and uncertainty in fostering.

The film brings light-hearted humor to difficulties in the foster care system through its simultaneous delivery of comedy and truth. In a world where people too frequently believe the stereotype that foster parents are in it for the money or out to rescue someone, “Instant Family” shows the journey of coming together, not perfect, but real and authentic.

Bring a box of Kleenexes with you for the emotional roller-coaster, but be warned, there is some language and adult humor. Teens, however, might just gain a little insight on what their parents are thinking as they are raising them. People who are considering foster care would greatly benefit from this film, as it shows all aspects of the experience. Some of the content may stir up memories of trauma for children who have been in similar situations.

I saw my life played out in this film. I laughed at the over-the-top foster parenting classes because my parents have shared how tedious the classes were for them.  The CPR classes and team building with other foster parents, the background checks and paperwork, the months my parents spent just to be able to house me now came alive on a big screen. Even the small details–the mannerisms of an awkward social worker, the naivety of grandparents spoiling their new kids–seemed familiar.

I related most to Lizzie, a more dramatic, outright rebellious version of who I was, a hurting teen. She experienced great loss and abandonment, and was desperately trying to cope. One of the strangest things a child can experience is having multiple parents, calling someone ‘mom’ when they were not the person to hold you in their arms and nurse you. It is a bittersweet phenomenon. There is a proverb that says it takes both sunshine and rain to make a rainbow, and “Instant Family” explores the meaning of this in adoption. We see the hurt of the past meeting hope and joy for the future. “Instant Family” describes it best in the scene where Pete and Ellie sought motivation from a former foster parent whose daughter’s story inspired them to do foster care in the first place: “anything worth doing is hard.”