“Maybe this makes me a bad person,” Pete and Ellie Wagner say again and again in Instant Family, often enough for it to become a sort of refrain. As written by director Sean Anders, whose family’s true story inspired the movie, they’re not bad people, nor are they heroes. Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are in turn giddy, shallow, altruistic, and selfish, but above all they’re a couple who made a choice: they’re adopting three kids.
The affluent couple’s choice is examined from every angle by judgy relatives, a duo of foster system employees with opposing philosophies (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer), and even the new kids themselves. At one point, Pete worries about the optics of two white parents taking in three Latino kids, likening it to the white savior plot of Avatar. “You’re gonna get some funny looks and people are gonna say some stupid shit,” Spencer’s character admits, and it’s not so much reassuring as it is a plain truth. Instant Family thrives in this type of uneasy middle ground, where right answers are elusive and adults make it up as they go along. In contrast with the rest of Anders’ raunchy filmography (Horrible Bosses 2, Daddy’s Home), the film hits plenty of painfully realistic beats while juggling its heightened comedic tone.
Instant Family is a semi-competent comedy, a solid tearjerker, and an exceptional tour through the foster parenting process. This isn’t a PSA or an episode of This Is Us, but a sometimes unbearably self-aware warts-and-all look at the many factors that go into adopting. At one point, Pete and Ellie whisper to one another about wanting to return the kids like an ill-fitting item of clothing, and the conversation is shocking in its mean-spirited honesty. But like so much of Instant Family — grocery store tantrums, bloody accidents, the line between disciplining kids and traumatizing them — it’s a position that real parents have been in. The lows here are so low that they initially seem out-of-place in a sitcom-like studio movie, but because of this undercurrent of struggle, the highs–moments of true connection and support among the new family soar.
Not everything in this movie works. Spencer and Notaro’s characters mostly fall flat, as do several of the jokes. Scenes often end on strangely dull notes, especially in the film’s first half, giving it an erratic energy, and there’s a spirit of a much weirder movie than the one we got that only occasionally shines through. Formally, it’s all pretty standard, but the few flourishes fit in nicely with the story that’s being told; a big moment is rendered in epic slow-motion, while a series of familiar “we suck at this” and “we’re making progress” montages manage to come across as endearing.
Overall, more comes together than expected, and the jokes that land are memorable. An extended joke about a white single mom who’s unknowingly acting out the plot of The Blind Side is a goofy way to present the ulterior motives of some foster parents, while a quickly escalating tantrum ends with a threat of bodily injury via Spongebob butter knife. The playful digs at first-time foster parents are plentiful, as when a mild-mannered Christian couple gets paired with a psychotic kindergartner. There’s charm and chaos here working in tandem, to mostly positive results.
Byrne and Wahlberg can be grating as a couple that’s as petty as they are kind-hearted, but at their most excitable, they’re adorable together and a blast to watch. The two feed off one another, and in sequences like the one in the trailer which ends with them in handcuffs after attacking their new daughter’s dick-pic sending paramour, they’re a satisfying comedy odd couple. The movie doesn’t hide the fact that it’s more about this couple than the children they take on, and their occasional moments of silent understanding, as when they decide to adopt in a wordless conversation, are some of the film’s most touching.
Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Knight, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) is the movie’s clear standout. As teen adoptee Lizzy, she’s prone to pushing people away, protective of her younger siblings, and fragile when it comes to her birth family. Her combative exterior and attachment problems add up to a familiar character cocktail, but Moner keeps it from falling into trope territory with some serious acting chops. She’s feisty, but her anger hides pain and fear, a balancing act Moner pulls off with ease.
“Things that matter are hard,” a character says at one point, and that’s nothing if not the moral of Anders’ story. Instant Family may not be one of the best comedies of the year, but it is one of the best movies about adoption in recent memory. It succeeds as an encouragement to do hard things because they matter, and as a blisteringly candid portrait of the people who already have.