The life of a parent has been described as “all joy and no fun.” The act of having children trades the instant gratification of autonomous adulthood–the soft thrill of sleeping in or enjoying the stillness of a quiet home–for the macro-satisfaction of shepherding children along the precious milestones of life. Instant Family depicts an aggressively amiable couple who make that swap in a blink by fostering a trio of challenging children. What follows is a wobbly yet enjoyable film that trembles on a high wire between mawkish drama and goofy Judd Apatow-inspired shenanigans. Instant Family delivers an instant message: This country brims with frightened, frustrated children who’ve never known joy nor fun, and fostering them is a risky, patience-draining endeavor that can yield immense rewards.
If Pinterest came alive in the form of a couple, it would be Pete and Ellie Wagner (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne). They transform raggedy houses into HGTV-porn, replete with kitchen islands and rustic hardwood flooring. Ellie finds an emptiness to their lives, beyond all the open floor plans. She wants to foster and possibly adopt a child. He is initially resistant; their lifestyle is so lived-in, so comfortable. But, after a maudlin journey through an internet gallery of doe-eyed Dickensian orphans–I really expected Sarah McLachlan’s Angel to rise from the speakers–he relents as well.
Pete and Ellie attend prep classes designed to harden the naive and weed out the unprepared. Their counselors are Karen and Sharon (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro), a blunt, ebullient woman and a sardonic, NPR lesbian, respectively. The class of prospective parents is filled with caricatures; they’re unwritten, broad, and ultimately unfunny. Pete and Ellie select their children in a surreal, outdoor Job Fair environment. Kids mill about awkwardly, like they’re waiting to be picked for basketball. The couple is drawn to three siblings: Lizzy (Isabela Moner), a pretty, precocious teenager, whose bright smile hides a short fuse; Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), sweet and loving, but all thumbs; Lita (Julianna Gamiz), the preschooler filled with tantrums and one-liners. Pete and Ellie take the kids, only to find their house transformed into a war zone of teenage angst and toddler rebellion.
The comedy of Instant Family is mostly gentle, like a little sugar to help the medicine of its message go down. Things get dicey when the story goes dramatic: Characters make big, bold, speeches; the music swells; the camera slowly creeps closer. It’s so obvious the movie even makes a joke about it at one point. I know that with a message this important something like subtlety matters less, but a little more nuance every now and then could’ve been a nice palate cleanser.
That said, this film has plenty of strengths: Moner is a standout as the acerbic teen whose strength conceals deep vulnerabilities. Wahlberg and Byrne are likable enough to carry their pleasantly bland characters. Cut through the speechmaking and sitcom hijinks, and you’ll find some scenes of depth and warmth, and even some real humor. Instant Family has moments of joy and moments of fun, even if they sometimes sit awkwardly next to each other.