INSTANT FAMILY. Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Ilza Schlesinger, Margo Martindale, and Joan Cusack. Directed by Sean Anders. Rated M (Coarse language). 117 min.
This American comedy-drama is based loosely on the experiences of the film’s Director, Sean Anders. It tells the story of a childless married couple, who decide to become adoptive parents, and who experience problems along the way.
Pete and Ellie Wagner (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a middle-aged couple who are beginning to experience the absence of children in their lives. Anticipating what might lie ahead of them, they take determined steps to become adoptive parents.
To prove they can be “special”, they decide to adopt three Latino children - Lizzie (Isabela Moner), and her two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz).
After self-doubts, discouragements, and setbacks, Lizzie, Juan and Lita move in with Pete and Ellie to test the waters of whether legal adoption will work, and life in the Wagner family quickly deteriorates and becomes chaotic for both parents and children.
Lizzie constantly confronts Pete and Ellie whenever she can. Lita will only eat potato chips, and screams when she isn’t given them; and Juan overreacts emotionally to the slightest signs of lack of approval, or impending conflict, and is accident-prone. To further compound the family’s problems, Lizzie’s single mother is a drug addict, who decides it is in her best interests to be seen to take her children back - she set fire to her home in the past, and has served time in prison, and she reappears to state her claim to her children.
Many moments are genuinely funny and emotionally moving, and the movie is scripted wittily.
Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro play two social workers, Karen and Sharon, who enrol the Wagners in a course designed to prepare them for future adoption. That situation gets out of hand for all concerned, and produces insight-producing experiences for everyone.
Threading through the movie is a series of brief cameo performances that show the wisdom of acting humanely. Ilza Schlesinger is the outcast of the adoptive therapy group, who wants to adopt someone who will becomes a professional athlete; Margo Martindale vibrantly takes the part of Grandma Sandy who loves her grandchildren and wants desperately to be loved by them; and Joan Cusack takes the role of an emotionally needy neighbour to the Wagners, who invites the social workers in for cake.
The movie makes heavy use of situational-action based comedy where objects find their unintended targets, and people don’t duck quickly enough to avoid body contact. Overall, though, the movie’s comic force effectively targets the trials and tribulations of adoption.
Frustrations abound as gradual recovery is made to loving relationships. Quick solutions are posed to weighty problems that might have been explored more fully, and the acting at times borders on the obvious, but this is a movie with a big heart that rests in the right place.
The film pulls no punches on the issues that face the adoptive culture. It tells us that tolerance will be needed for multiple problems that are bound to rear their head; expressions of love and caring must always be around the corner, when one detects serious signs of unhappiness; and parental persistence will be needed for situations that get out of control.
Through all the concerns, difficulties, and fun times that families typically share together, the overall message of this movie is never in doubt: the adoption system is viable, to be valued, and a rewarding alternative for parents not being able to have children of their own.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Literature
Released January 10th., 2019