Instant Family Review – A Wonderful Embrace of the Family in All Forms

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On paper, Instant Family has all the ingredients for being a mess. It’s directed by Sean Anders – he of That’s My Boy, Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 fame. It has a comedic lead turn from Mark Wahlberg. And, it’s about a white couple adopting three latinx kids. Alarm bells are ringing.

But, dammit, Instant Family is great.

And it’s likely thanks to Sean Anders himself. Partially based on his own life, Instant Family sees Wahlberg acting as the surrogate for Anders, with Rose Byrne stepping into the role of Sean’s wife. Here, they are thirty-something Pete and Ellie Wagner – house flipping power couple who never expected to have kids until they realise they have a kid shaped hole in their life that needs filling. Not particularly keen to have kids of their own, they opt to give adoption a shot. At an adoption event, they meet Lizzie (the truly fantastic Isabela Moner), and thinking that they are adopting just her, they put in an application. Little do Pete and Ellie know that Lizzie actually comes with two siblings – Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and Lita (Julianna Gamiz).

What initially seems like a walk in the park quickly turns into Pete and Ellie being out of their depth. While this seems like an invitation for PG-rated hijinks to occur, Anders mines his own life experience for some genuine humanity and crafts a film that encourages the open discussion about adoption.

The reality of adoption with all its benefits and pitfalls are explored with a surprisingly frank tone. It’s impressive to see a big name Hollywood flick talk about issues like drug use and sexual assault in a manner that might actually encourage genuine, open discussions within families. It’s not exactly a Precious level exploration into the trauma that kids face in broken homes, but it is enough to applaud Anders for pushing this discussion into the open.

Instant Family also doesn’t shy away from the immense level of privilege that the Wagner’s have, with Wahlberg delivering one of the funniest lines of the film, afraid that they’re going to be white saviours ‘Avatar style’. Even better is the jab at The Blind Side that comes with a single woman who is specifically looking for a tall, athletic black teen that she can raise.   

The casting of Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer as the two social workers who guide hopeful parents down the path of being ready for adoption is inspired. Notaro and Spencer carry a beautiful warmth to their roles where they help show the care and dedication that social workers put into their career. Sure, it’s a little sugar coated here, but scratch beneath that surface and you’ll see the exhaustive work that goes in to the adoption process.

It’s not all smiles and cheers though, as Instant Family does unfortunately stumble near the end where Anders feels the need to vilify Lizzie, Juan, and Lita’s drug addicted mother. It’s a hard line to tread, and unfortunately Anders can’t help but lean into making Pete and Ellie a little too heroic near the end. A prime opportunity to show the harmonic relationship that can sometimes exist between adoptive parents and the birth parents is squandered.

It’s a small quibble in what is an overall heart warming, joyous, fun film. Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are clearly at ease with these roles, bouncing off each other with great comedic timing, and a real sense that Pete and Ellie belong together. Instant Family is the sort of wholesome family entertainment we need more of. Enjoy.

Director: Sean Anders
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner
Writers: Sean Anders, John Morris

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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