“But we love you,” say middle-aged foster parents Ellie and Pete Wagner (Rose Byrne, Mark Wahlberg). “You don’t even know who I am!” 15-year-old foster child Lizzie (Isabela Moner) declares. “Don’t say that,” Ellie says. “Please,” says Lizzie, weeping, “just go away.” For Ellie and Pete, foster-parenting Lizzie and her two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz) is not going well. That’s the heartfelt setup for this family drama/comedy, a compelling, if sometimes uneven, message movie.
Will little Lita ever get over her screaming tantrums? Can Juan bond with foster-dad Pete? Does sensitive and willful Lizzie learn to love foster-mom Ellie? For answers, see “Instant Family.”
The film’s five central characters — Ellie, Pete, and their three Latino foster children — are portrayed convincingly by ensemble actors Rose Byrne, Mark Wahlberg, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz. There are no missed beats as they act out their characters’ difficult, stressful and — perhaps — unsuccessful efforts to become a family. As troubled Lizzie, Isabela Moner is a standout. A foster child most of her life, she’s learned to be cynical. Foster parents are all taught the same lesson: “Regulate/Relate/Reason.” “I could barf all over the ground,” she says to Ellie, “if you try to use the ‘Three R’s’ on me.”
Others in the skillful cast include Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as Karen and Sharon, co-leaders of the foster-parent support group Ellie and Pete attend. “Things that matter,” Karen says to the group, “are hard. Your job is to keep children safe whether they want to be or not.” It’s a tough job. Watch for Margo Martindale, a joy as Grandma Sandy, Pete’s mother, who always seems to know the right thing to say to Lizzie, Juan and Lita.
“Instant Family” is a movie with a message. Its takeaway is on the screen at film’s end: “Learn more about foster parents at instantfamily.com.” It’s a serious message, inspired by director Sean Anders and his wife’s experience, adopting three foster children. But his film, co-written with John Morris, is not just message, it’s also entertainment. It’s a difficult mix of quick-paced, goofy comedy and near-tragedy that Anders and his talented cast pull off, thanks to smart performances and good moviemaking — editing, camera-work and soundtrack by Brad E. Wilhite, Brett Pawlak and Michael Andrews. “Instant Family” works. We care about its characters. We want them to be a family.
Rated PG-13 for themes, sexual material, language and some drug references, “Instant Family” runs 119 minutes. A film for adults and older teens.
Is serious comedy;
Makes you feel good.