Director: Sean Anders
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Octavia Spencer, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale
Running time: 119 minutes
Right then folks, be honest: hands up if you were expecting Instant Family – Sean Anders’ 2019 semi-autobiographical film about adoption – to be one, or a combination of the following?:
a) An eye-gougingly painful lesson in misjudged slapstick humour.
b) An intricate, in-depth breakdown of Mark Wahlberg’s impressively gruelling daily routine.
c) Two hours of kids getting hit in the face by a basketball.
Well, if you’re finding those outstretched phalanges of yours brushing the ceiling, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that Instant Family is in fact option d) Actually quite charming. Although it does still have a young lad getting a basketball right in the schnozz…
Wahlberg and Byrne are Pete and Ellie Wagner: a young married couple who, after being taunted by relatives who think they’ll never have kids, start considering the option of adopting a child. They soon arrange a meeting with social workers Karen (Spencer) and Sharon (Notaro) – a chalk and cheese duo trying their utmost for their own spin-off movie – who enrol them into a course for prospective adoptive parents. It’s hardly fostering Full Metal Jacket, but two things become abundantly clear: The Blind Side isn’t a justifiable reason for wanting to adopt, and teenagers should be avoided like the plague. But going against the grain – and via a peculiar (and, when you really think about it, rather disconcerting) “adoption fair” – Ellie and Pete quickly take a shine to 15-year old Lizzy (Moner).
She comes with more than a little baggage, however: her mother is a drug addict currently serving time and she has two younger siblings, Juan (Quiroz) and Lita (Gamiz). Initially reluctant, the Wagners soon agree to foster all three children.
However, the “instant” of Instant Family is misleading. Just as the inevitable struggles to adjust to one another (diets of exclusively potato chips and dick pics, inclusive) quickly cause family friction, Anders’ film begins as an uncomfortable juggling of tonal unevenness that is far from assured. Balancing comedy with sincerity is no easy act, achieved only through the craft of the most intricate of story tellers, and in its early exchanges, Instant Family clunkily shoehorns in a handful of gags that either fail to land or fall just the right side of appropriate – namely, a sequence centring around the confrontation of a paedophile that is brushed over rather thinly and played almost solely for laughs.
But, from the get-go, Instant Family’s heart is firmly in the right place. And it really does show. Emitting an undeniable warmth and tenderness – as well as a reined-in Wahlberg – this is a delightfully kind, considered approach to a difficult subject that, despite its familiar narrative arc and occasional on-the-nose sentiment – Pete and Ellie’s occupation as renovators mean they, quite literally, have to build a home – Instant Family is a generous slice of good-natured, jovial fun.
It might not revolutionise the genre from which it takes inspiration, but Instant Family is sure to put a smile on your face. And during these times of great uncertainty, that’s an aim we could all do with adopting.