In 1993, Robin Williams starred in a film about a man so desperate to see his kids after separating from his wife (Sally Field), he turned to cross-dressing as a nanny to spend time with them every day. The film, of course, is Mrs. Doubtfire and was an instant classic, not only for its clever humor (and Williams’s winning performance), but because at its core was a strong respect for parents and children who have gone through divorce. It didn’t try to pander to anyone while depicting the hardships in sharing custody and provided an uplifting message that when a couple at odds with one another can find it in their hearts to put their children’s interest first, parents can make things work for the best.
Instant Family treads in the same waters as Mrs. Doubtfire even as it tackles a different subject altogether — foster care and adoption. Though the premise may be slightly different, what remains is the pure heart the filmmakers have for the subject and the respect they have for those individuals who truly care about giving kids in unfortunate circumstances a better, more prosperous life.
Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play Pete and Ellie, a loving couple who spend most of their days flipping houses. After a conversation with her sister (Allyn Rachel) about having children, Ellie wonders what it would be like to have a child, starting her down the road of adoption. Though there is plenty of hesitancy by both Ellie and Pete, there’s enough joy and excitement to push them past their initial bout of cold feet. After attending a foster fair, in which potential parents can meet several children and choose who they connect with best, Pete and Ellie meet Lizzy (Isabela Moner), a spicy fifteen-year-old who makes a quick and lasting impression on the couple.
The rub: Lizzie comes as a package deal. If Pete and Ellie want her, they also need to take her brother and sister, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). As you might expect, each kid has their own set of problems. Juan is quick to fear he may get hit for every small mistake he makes, and Lita is a screaming banshee who only wants to ever eat potato chips. But as the family learns how to navigate through these idiosyncrasies, the strangers begin to meld together and become the family they always wished they could be.
The idea may feel rosy and sweet, but the underbelly of what Pete and Ellie must go through is a lot more disastrous. Writers John Morris and Sean Anders (who also directed) make it clear adopting children isn’t some fantasy, where nothing ever goes wrong and everyone is on your side. There are plenty of obstacles that must be faced, including past experiences that have already shaped the child’s psyche, as well as the looming possibility that the biological parents may enter back into the picture. Sometimes, no matter how many in-roads you make, kids are kids and they may slip back into bad habits at any time.
The film also wants to make sure people understand that couples looking to foster or adopt a child don’t simply walk up to an orphanage and pick their new model. There are classes and counseling they must go through in order to make sure they’re physically and mentally ready to accept a child into their home. These aren’t parents in the natural sense, who have nine months to prepare, and another couple of years to find their groove before their little bundles of joy become terrors on the south seas. These parents are jumping into the deep end with no life jacket, and it can be just as scary and daunting for them as it is for the kids.
It also doesn’t hold back when it comes to facing the harsh realities of how parents sometimes feel when it comes to their kids and whether they did the right thing. Whether you have a child naturally or adopt, it can be quite overwhelming being a parent and it’s natural to go through moments of self-doubt, or dreams of returning to your old life. It may be somewhat morbid, but Family does a very good job of balancing this idea with the love that the parents have for their children.
Wahlberg and Byrne do a fantastic job traversing through all of these life lessons together. It’s especially incredible to watch Wahlburg become the father he was meant to be. But the one who shines brighter than anyone throughout the film is Moner. The young talent has been around for a while now with smaller roles in giant movies — I thought she was great in Transformers: The Last Knight, where she first showed her on-screen chemistry with Wahlberg, and I don’t even remember her in Sicario: Day of the Soldado — but this is the first time I’ve seen her pull in the spotlight and demand the attention she so rightly deserves.
Moner finds just the right touch of body language to show how deeply her actions and her mind differ. She puts on a brave face for her siblings while doing what she needs to make Pete and Ellie feel they’re doing a good job, but deep down, her only desire is to reunite with her mom (Joselin Reyes), which causes her inner core to break through the facade and make her seem much more wicked than she really is.
A lot of comedies these days feel the need to douse their films with gross-out humor and inane set-pieces that force comedy out of situations as opposed to allowing the situation to dictate the comedy. Instant Family doesn’t need any of that, as it allows the circumstances to play naturally throughout. It may not be as funny, or involve as many substantial set-pieces as Mrs. Doubtfire, but it has plenty of feel-good laughs and strong character development that when the the film pulls at your heartstrings, it doesn’t feel forced or manipulated. In other words, when the big, important, dramatic stuff hits, it hits hard, but in the perfect, most elegant way possible.
There are moments of missed opportunities (a couple of threads that aren’t developed enough) and a few moments that don’t land quite right (see: Julie Hagerty as Byrne’s mother, or some of the other foster parents), but these are small gripes in an overall well-made package. (Be on the lookout as well for an oddly placed (and wonderfully surprising) cameo by Joan Cusack, which hurts because it only makes you wonder where she’s been and why she doesn’t do more stuff. She is clearly still as talented as ever, even in the mere few minutes of screen time she’s given.)
It may not be as instant as the title suggests, but Instant Family does reveal that if you are willing to do the work, and share every ounce of your heart with a child, it is very much possible to build a loving family and change someone’s life for the better, and does so with beauty and love, transporting you to a place that feels real and honest.
My Grade: A
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Next week, new movies include Creed II, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Robin Hood. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.