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Try to think of happy movies about kids in foster care. Without googling, I came up with only one, 1994’s Angels in the Outfield, which is mostly about heavenly hosts playing baseball and only partly about a boy, played by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, living in a foster home and dreaming about having a father. And googling films about foster care doesn’t help a whole lot either. (Sorry Google, Annie doesn’t really count as a foster care movie.)
Instant Family joins that rare genre. The movie follows a Chip and Joanna Gaines knockoff couple, Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne), who decide they want to be parents. After Pete makes an offhand comment about adopting, they find themselves swept into the world of fostering a teenager and her two younger siblings.
Pete and Ellie, previously living a manicured American dream, must deal with all the struggles of suddenly parenting three hurting kids of different ages who might stay with them forever—or might go back to their birth mom, depending on the ruling of the family court. In the sleepless nights and screaming dinners, the couple’s poor motives, inexperienced parenting, and previously undiscovered anger come popping out, and they begin to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.
The film uses a few old, corny plot devices. But it’s mainly sweet, funny, and incisive, probably because it is based on the real story of director/writer Sean Anders.
Within a few months Anders and his wife Beth, like the couple in the film, went from no kids to three foster kids—children who were playing in Central Park as we talked. Anders says that fears about foster care are often “overblown,” though he knows it isn’t an easy undertaking.
“When you get pregnant and you announce to your friends and family that you’re going to have a baby, no one says, ‘What if that kid becomes a drug dealer and then steals your car?’” he said. “No one ever says that and, by the way, that could totally happen. But if you’re talking about kids from foster care, a lot of people express that kind of notion.”
In the film one fellow foster parent says to Pete and Ellie, as they’re dealing with their kids’ problems: “You feel frustrated, scared? That’s how our kids feel every day of their lives.”
The story is almost exactly what Anders experienced, complete with the foster parent support group with a Christian couple and a gay couple (neither of which figure very largely in the movie). One scene that I initially found absurd actually happened in Anders’ case—where Pete and Ellie attend a foster-system-sponsored carnival to try to find a particular child they might foster to adopt. It was “so bizarre,” Anders said.
The film (rated PG-13 for language and an incident where the teen sister receives a certain picture from a boy) handles several tricky issues deftly, through humor. Pete at one point brings up his discomfort with being a “white savior” and adopting minority kids. The hilarious Tig Notaro, who plays one half of a social worker duo along with Octavia Spencer, returns dryly, “We’ll just toss these kids back in the system and jot you down for whites only.”
Kids should ideally be with their biological parents, but if the foster family is the focus of the story, you can’t help but root for the foster parents to get the kids. As the social workers in the film remind the couple and the audience, until adoption happens, the goal of foster care is family reunification. Foster care is full of these kinds of uncomfortable tensions, which might be why movie studios don’t know how to make uplifting movies that are also honest about it.
“My own story happens to be a happy one,” said Anders. “So that’s the story I’m telling.”