Review by Emma Ledford
Texas CASA Communications Specialist
Instant Family didn’t have to portray the foster-to-adopt process as realistically as it did – but it sure did – and it did it pretty darn well.
Without giving too much away, here’s the basic plot: Pete (Mark Walhberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) feel ready to start a family. After some conversation and reflection, they decide they have what it takes to adopt a child from foster care. After all, they’re already accomplished “fixers” since they flip houses for a living – what could be so difficult about being foster parents?
After taking in three siblings, they soon realize they’re in for a rude awakening. Lita, the youngest, throws tantrums and only wants to eat potato chips. Juan, the middle sibling, is timid, shy and assumes everything is his fault. Lizzy, the oldest, has all the problems (and attitude) a typical teenage girl has – plus she’s dealing with the trauma of growing up in foster care and having raised her two siblings basically on her own for most of her life.
Troubles, both big and small, ensue – until Pete and Ellie hit rock bottom and are faced with a difficult choice. Do they really have enough love, resources, time and energy to care for these kiddos… or is it all too much?
The film’s biggest strength is that it’s based on a true story; fully grounded in the reality of the challenges children and youth in foster care, and foster parents, face. Lita, Juan and Lizzy arrive with trash bags of their belongings (“Kids carrying their whole life in a Hefty bag,” as Lizzy aptly puts it). Pete and Ellie try a trauma-informed approach to dealing with behavior issues – the Three R’s: Regulate, Relate and Reason – and well, frankly, it doesn’t work. Pete’s mother, their new grandmother, waltzes in halfway through the movie and (unknowingly and with the best intentions, of course) threatens to wreck the progress and structure Pete and Ellie have managed to create for the kids. Lizzy, as is the case for so many children in foster care, badly wants to keep a relationship with their biological mother who is recently out of rehab.
When Pete and Ellie don’t know where else to turn, they pay a visit to an adoptive family that spoke at their very first information session for advice. They explain that their daughter, who gave a powerful and inspirational speech at the information session, is back in rehab due to a relapse – proof that even successful adoptions don’t necessarily get easier with time.
“Things that matter are hard,” they offer. And the parents’ job is to “Keep them safe, whether they want you to or not.”
Aside from one minor character that’s basically a Blindside joke that never fully lands, the film does a solid job with regards to cultural competency. Lita, Juan and Lizzy are allowed to speak Spanish in the home, and there is decent race and LGBTQ representation. Pete and Ellie also have a good discussion with their adoption workers (played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer) on whether they should be worried about being “white saviors” since they’re fostering Hispanic children.
The movie also gets an A+ on stressing the importance of keeping sibling groups together whenever possible. Lita, Juan and Lizzy rely on each other at least as much as they rely on Pete and Ellie, if not more so.
Instant Family is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references.” Parents taking children to see the film should be mindful that there is some (realistic) foul language, as well as suggestions of an inappropriate texting relationship between a highschooler and an adult – this subplot, while a little unnecessary in my opinion, is dealt with pretty well. Please, of course, be wary of taking children and youth who have experienced foster care to this film, as it could be triggering for them.
Overall, Instant Family is an effective, heartwarming, heart wrenching and well-acted family dramedy. Take your family, take your friends – and start a conversation about foster care and the challenges children and families face. Who knows? They could be a future CASA volunteer, or even a future adoptive parent, and this film could be what pushes them to take that step! Watch the trailer for Instant Family below.