Film Review: ‘Instant Family’ Should Win Oscar for Best Feel-Good Movie

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
November 14, 2018 Updated: November 15, 2018

PG-13 | Comedy | 16 November 2018 (USA)

Here’s a pet peeve of mine (no pun intended). As much as I love all those heartwarming videos on Facebook of humans going above and beyond to save ducklings stuck in storm drains, whale sharks strangling in fishing nets, turtles being squeezed to death by Budweiser six-pack holders, beached dolphins, legless squirrels fixed up with little wheelchair roller thingies, etc., etc., I sometimes wonder: Why are there so many more of these than humans-saving-humans videos? Rescue-dogs? What about rescue-humans?! Is it just me?

Childless married couple Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) attend a meeting for wannabe foster parents, and Pete points out this can’t-say-rescue-kid elephant in the room. And whereas Ellie immediately tries to stifle his un-PC outburst, I’m like, “Thank you!”

Re-brand them as “Rescue kids”; maybe it would get more people saying, “Hmm! Pit bull … human … German shepherd … human … Hey honey, what do you think about getting a rescue kid instead of a rescue dog?” “Ummm … how about both?” Now yer talkin’.

The press screening of “Instant Family” started with a prelude: a separate video of director-writer-producer Sean Anders talking to the camera about how this movie is based on his and his wife’s real-life fostering experience. It was highly successful positive priming; Anders is a nice man, and he did an amazing, selfless, seriously difficult thing, lived to tell the tale, and made an excellent movie.

cast of instant family
(L–R) Tig Notaro, Octavia Spencer, and director Sean Anders in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

Which leads to another pet peeve: Why do we say “feel-good movie” like it’s a bad thing? That needs to stop. This is one of the most feel-goody, feel-good movies to come down the pike in a while. That’s a good thing.

Three for the Price of One

As mentioned, Pete and Ellie want to start a family, and they take us on a vicarious excursion into the byzantine realm of foster care adoption.

(L-R) Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne cuddle
Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

They’re naturally thinking, you know, maybe not an infant, but one young-ish child would suffice. Later, while attending a sort of foster-kid rummage sale, Pete sees a gaggle of teens (who notoriously never get picked) off to the side, talking among themselves. He engages them out of curiosity.

Ellie and Pete feel an immediate connection with sarcastic, verbally abusive, 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner), who quickly calls them on their subconscious feelings of inadequacy and fear. It’s kinda-sorta love at first fight. One minor stipulation: She comes with not one, but two younger siblings. In the words of Keanu, “Whoa.”

But Pete and Ellie feel to the manor born. They’re in the construction business of flipping houses; they’re professional fixer-uppers. How hard could fixing up some little kids be?

Said little kids naturally start off cute enough, but the emotional baggage and various forms of arrested development (due to having a junkie mom, and having lived for a time in a crack house) inevitably emerge and then stay front and center for a goodly amount of time.

In the case of accident-prone second child Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), the fixing up is a literal, almost full-time job. The kid eternally spaces out and drops pneumatic nail-guns on his feet, and such, nailing foot to floor and necessitating sprints to the ER.

Littlest bear Lita (Julianna Gamiz) has a set of lungs on her with the decibel level of a fire engine.

And Lizzy, naturally, is attracted to the hyper-sleazeball 22-year-old high school janitor. What do you do if you catch your 15-year-old daughter taking a naked pix in the bathroom, to reciprocate the creep-janitor’s texting of that particular nightmare selfie that parents of earlier generations could never have even imagined, let alone needed to ground teenagers for?

Well, you might take the wayward daughter to a fixer-upper house, give her a set of construction goggles, and have her smash stuff with a sledgehammer. “Wait! Don’t waste it. Think of something you’re really mad about first!” It’s the anger-management bat-and-pillow technique of therapists—very, very satisfying.

Isabela Moner sees her new room
(L–R) Mark Wahlberg, Isabela Moner, and Rose Byrne in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

Alternate Parental Plots

We get to follow the parental journeys of some of the others in the support group as well, the best of which is a straight-laced, no-sense-of-humor-having blond woman (comedian Iliza Shlesinger), who, though she vehemently denies it and is probably in denial about it herself, is looking to re-create the storyline from Sandra Bullock’s movie, 2009’s “The Blind Side.” She yearns to adopt a big, black, talented athletic kid.

Iliza Shlesinger takes notes
Iliza Shlesinger in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

She’s the butt of many jokes. But when she gets a red-haired, freckle-faced child with zero athletic ability, we warm to watching her mothering instinct finally emerge, regardless of her ridiculous fantasy.

Very fun here is the slightly Abbott and Costello-like dynamic between Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (comedian Tig Notaro, who Rolling Stone magazine named one of the “50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time”) as adoption counselors and support-group monitors. Watch for the priceless inside-joke referencing of Spencer’s now-historic pie-baking scene in “The Help.”

Tig Notaro and Octavia talking
Tig Notaro (L) and Octavia Spencer in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

Margo Martindale shines as Pete’s mom, who, not having had the best upbringing herself, can relate to the powerful undertow of mistrust and low self-esteem that the children constantly stand in and that threatens to wash them away from being loved and cared for.

Margo Martindale pinches Julianna Gamiz's cheeks
Tig Notaro (L) and Octavia Spencer in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

Julie Hagerty plays Ellie’s mom as the well-meaning, tries-a-little-too-hard, slightly bird-brained other grandma.

Julie Hagerty gets face painted
(L–R) Julianna Gamiz, Julie Hagerty, and Gustavo Quiroz in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

Will the Wagners’ efforts survive an 11th-hour bid by the kids’ biological mom to claim them? Will neighbors and relatives change their racist views and get over themselves and their fears? Will the kids be tamed? Will they be rescued?

Go Feel Uplifted

The point of art is to uplift, not drag down. When Pete hears the glowing testimony of Brenda, a successfully raised adopted child, he points to the adoptive parents and says to Ellie, “We find potential in things and fix them up. Like they did. They find a kid in a state of disrepair. They give her a coat of paint, scrape off her emotional popcorn ceiling, and install some countertops in the form of love or self-esteem or whatever. I think we are perfect for this. Are you pumped?”

Mark Wahlberg is usually less effective in a role where he needs to be upbeat and highly verbal, so the above mini-monologue is slightly less effective than had it been said by, say, Ryan Gosling, but put in perspective of the feel-good quotient of “Instant Family,” that’s splitting hairs.

But regardless—imagine if folks looking for a rescue dog or cat took a rescue kid in the bargain. Is that not uplifting? I’m definitely pumped.

Instant family with the family
(L–R) A happy family played by Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Julianna Gamiz, and Gustavo Quiroz in “Instant Family.” (Paramount Pictures)

‘Instant Family’
Director: Sean Anders
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Octavia Spencer, Margo Martindale, Michael O’Keefe, Iliza Shlesinger
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 16
Rated 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch