Fostering kids is a huge deal, and Instant Family takes great pains from beginning to end to illustrate the highs and lows of what it takes to be a foster family (and adopt, for that matter). But for a huge chunk of the running time, the film plays more like a treatise than a movie. And while I respect director Sean Anders for tackling the subject, which is clearly a very personal one for him, that doesn’t make the movie anything more than a fluffy, throwaway heartstring-tugging machine. But it’s one of those cases where, if only the director had gotten out of his own way, the film might have had a chance to cut straighter than it ever does in its current form. And, for myself, my heartstrings are fairly well-buried, especially when Mark Wahlberg is doing the tugging, so it’s all lost on me anyway.
Wahlberg has two basic settings these days, neither of them all that interesting to watch. Here, he’s in full high-pitched whiny mode. Rose Byrne gets a little more range to work with, but only within the confines of the tight family comedy universe she’s allowed to operate within. The three kids are all cute but annoying, which tends to wreck the momentum of the piece once it has moved beyond the “honeymoon phase,” as the film calls it, and onto the more scattered and hair-raising realities of raising a foster family. I’m sure Anders thinks he’s just being “real” here, but it more often than not just makes the prospect of getting involved with “someone else’s kids” look like an absolute nightmare. The message is muddled, to say the least.
There is also the troubling theme of the foster family experience as a metaphor for a romantic relationship, which comes through frequently, and, truthfully, I can’t tell if this is always intentional. The comparison is set up early, abandoned and brought back only when it seems to be the creepiest and most inappropriate time to do so. From the speed-dating vibe of the first parent-kid meet-and-greet sessions to the ending where (spoiler?) a judge announces, “I now pronounce you a family,” this bizarre and altogether unsettling theme is always present. It’s not helped by the fact that Wahlberg and Byrne are often framed as though they’re dating a mother, as 15-year-old Lizzy (Wahlberg’s Transformers: The Last Knight co-star Isabela Moner) is often leaned upon to help parent her younger siblings. It’s deeply weird.
Still, it isn’t nearly as horrific as it could have been. Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer are fine as the foster caseworkers who pair new parents with their kids. Notaro even gets a strange meta-zinger that will probably fly over the heads of most of the film’s intended mainstream audience but that I appreciated all the same. And, again, I applaud Anders for attempting such a serious subject in a movie like this. But he loses his way. You still need to get down to the business of making a good movie, and maybe Anders just wasn’t the guy this particular script needed. As they say in the film, “It’s not always a good fit.”