Written and directed by Sean Anders, co-written with John Morris, a married couple, Pete and Ellie Wagner decide to adopt teenager Lizzy. However, life turns challenging when they realise Lizzy has two more siblings. Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Butler, Tig Notaro, Isabela Merced, Gustavo Escobar, Julianna Gamiz and Margo Martindale.
When this film was released, it was likely one where you very quickly decided whether you wanted to see it or not, films of this nature can come across as saccharine and overly silly so many probably swiftly gave up on it. However, given a chance it does have a lot to offer to a wider audience, not just people who love a good sappy story, granted it does have a fair amount of that but it’s also surprisingly funny. One of the aspects that likely makes this concept work well, despite the many attempts that have come before it, is the connection that its director and co-writer has with the story, having been partially based on his life and how he and his wife adopted three siblings. It’s unlikely you could name a family-friendly, positive and genuinely entertaining film about fostering and adoption, so the need that this film fills is very satisfying to watch and hopefully might even open up some people to the idea in their own lives.
The other main aspect that makes it work is the chemistry that all the actors have together, starting with Wahlberg and Byrne, it wasn’t hard to see them as a couple and they work really well together, which is amplified by how well they work with the actors playing their foster kids. Merced will of course be known as her starring role in Dora and the Lost City of Gold, whereas Escobar and Gamiz are relatively unknown but the three of them together are a delightful, if slightly damaged, family each presenting their own challenges. However, almost nudging them out of the top slot for what makes this film work is the buddy social worker dynamic that Butler and Notaro have going, it provides a great dose of comedy and honestly, it would be a lot of fun to have a spinoff of their experiences with different families. It’s also nice to have thrown in Iliza Schlesinger and Joan Cusack as oddities that add some good one liners, although it would have been better to see Cusack’s character introduced earlier. Then of course there’s Martindale, who’s just a joy to add to any cast so there’s nothing but positivity coming from her casting.
Again, it’s so easy to dismiss a film like this because of its entirely sentimental set-up but it works that sentimentality perfectly and highlights how lives can be changed by accepting children into your family who need someone to care for them. It’s beyond generous and as the film quite clearly shows requires a herculean amount of patience but ultimately is probably one of the most rewarding experiences life has to offer. It will bring a tear or two, perhaps not to the extent of bawling your eyes out but the emotional journey is there and it’s an extremely worthwhile one to watch. It also has that emotion balanced with a good amount of comedy to not hit those saccharine notes too hard but to keep it within a heart-warming range. It’s not often that a film such as this is genuinely funny, it’s usually more so in a childish fashion with slapstick humour but the writing has a lot of surprisingly relevant jokes and ones that are enjoyable for the whole family. The ongoing joke with Schlesinger’s character and her wish to adopt an athletically gifted Black child, as is proven to happen in the US, is nicely on point.
Ultimately Instant Family unfortunately looks like a throw-away film when deceptively it has a big heart and a strong funny side. There’s a brilliantly chosen cast, pairing Octavia Butler and Tig Notaro was a stroke of genius and it would be amazing to see more from their characters, but all of them work really well together, making one big family who are very enjoyable to watch. If there was one problem to note with this film, it’s that their dog Meatball, does not get enough screen time.