I went into Instant Family ready to trash it. I don’t like Mark Wahlberg very much. Director Sean Anders made both Daddy’s Home movies, which in my opinion, are where comedy goes to die. These movies make money, but they didn’t bring me any joy. So, I was caught off guard when Anders’ newest film turned out to be something completely different. Instant Family is a poignant and self-aware comedic family drama that actively avoids the kind of trappings that sink movies like these.
Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are a married couple in their mid to late 30s. They run a successful business flipping houses and they’re happy, but maybe there’s something missing. They decide to become foster parents to three children, Lizzie (Isabela Moner,) a rebellious 15-year-old with a big personality and her two younger siblings Juan and Lita. The film follows the ups and downs of foster parenthood and the unlikely forming of a strong familial bond.
This film looks, sounds, and acts like the silly, goofy, stupid comedy that Anders, and Wahlberg, are known for. But, in the second half of this movie, it really becomes something more than you’d think. This movie took me by surprise. At moments where the movie could go for a cheap joke, it doesn’t and goes for something more sincere instead. It creates real emotional stakes for itself and its characters. Some moments ring false, but the good outweighs the bad.
Anders has stated that this film is inspired by his own family’s experience with becoming foster parents to older children, and there are moments that just ooze authenticity. Pete mentions out loud the “white savior narrative” of these parents taking in children of color. A woman in their foster parents’ support group seems insistent on living out the movie The Blind Side. What? I did not expect a movie from Sean Anders to contain this kind of self-awareness.
Rose Byrne is great, but I still feel like she deserves better work, since I’ve seen her in Damages, and I know what she can do. Wahlberg is fine, but I feel like he has a bit of a limited range, which isn’t a deal breaker in this role. Margo Martindale, Octavia Spencer, and Julie Hagerty have good supporting roles. Joan Cusack is in it also, for some reason. I’ve always thought Joan Cusack is one of those actors where you have to give her something that is worth her time, or why bother? But it’s nice to see Spencer and Martindale in supporting roles where they really elevate the material.
Overall, color me impressed. Sean Anders has crafted a lovely and heartfelt family drama for the holiday season. It’s not something you need to see in the theater in this crowded cinema landscape. It would be a perfect movie for a Netflix release. I could see a lot of families watching this at home over Thanksgiving and really enjoying it. Some moments are lame and don’t hit as well as others. But overall, it’s a surprisingly genuine, pleasant, and almost delightful family movie that will leave everyone in a good mood. And that’s enough.