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Big-hearted ‘Instant Family’ isn’t for the whole family

Nov 17, 2018, 6:42 AM | Updated: Nov 18, 2018, 4:43 pm
Isabela Moner, Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne in “Instant Family.” (Hopper Stone, Paramount Pictu...
Isabela Moner, Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne in “Instant Family.” (Hopper Stone, Paramount Pictures)
(Hopper Stone, Paramount Pictures)

“INSTANT FAMILY” — 3 stars — Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer; PG-13 (thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references); in general release; running time: 119 minutes

Inspired by his own experience as a foster parent, Sean Anders has set out to make a movie that will tell prospective parents exactly what to expect from the foster experience — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star as Pete and Ellie Wagner, a married couple who work together in a custom restoration business. “Instant Family” opens as they’ve purchased an old home in desperate need of renovation, but as they set about the “flipping” process, it’s clear the project is merely a metaphor for what is about to happen in their lives.

Pete and Ellie have been in denial about their desire for children, but as their hearts beat down the calculated rationalization of their minds, they wind up in an eight-week training program for prospective foster parents. Here, they meet a cross section of hopeful couples looking to complete their own families: the Christian couple, the gay couple, the couple struggling to conceive and the single mom who aspires to turn a disenfranchised African-American child into an athletic phenom (jokes about Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side” follow).

The program eventually brings Pete and Ellie together with a trio of siblings. Their father is out of the picture and their mother is in prison, so the hardened teenage Lizzy (Isabela Moner) is the de facto parent for younger siblings Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). The program suggests adopting siblings is preferred since it gives kids a more permanent anchor, but as Pete and Ellie take the kids in, they wonder if their ambition has outpaced their good sense.

What follows is the chaotic parenting equivalent of drinking from a fire hose. Lizzy is at the normal age to experiment with teenage rebellion, and her experience taking care of her siblings just makes it that much more difficult to cooperate with Pete and Ellie. Juan and Lita have their own problems, such as Juan’s hypersensitivity to criticism and discipline.

Naturally, the lows are balanced against the highs, and while the kids’ mother’s release from prison gives the story additional tension — will Pete and Ellie even have the option of adopting the kids? — Anders paints a dramatic portrait of the challenges of building an “instant family.”

Even without the upfront acknowledgment that the film is based on Anders’ experience, it’s clear “Instant Family” comes from the heart. And though its heart practically bursts with a pro-family message, consistent profanity and warts-and-all vulgarity suggest the film is best intended for the prospective parents and not for the children they will raise.

The chaotic mix is a pretty apt reflection of “Instant Family’s” emotionally jarring subject matter, though the balance of dramatic story vs. “be ready for this” itinerary checking isn’t perfectly smooth. Wahlberg and Byrne bring their usual onscreen appeal to their roles, though it’s unlikely either will consider the experience a landmark performance.

Considering “Instant Family’s” purpose, none of that may matter to interested audiences. Anders has created a film that shows the emotional rollercoaster of the foster experience, and while “Instant Family” may not be a perfect vehicle for that message, it gets the passengers home with only minor cuts and scratches.

Rating explained: “Instant Family” is a strongly pro-family film, but its persistent profanity and vulgarity should limit audiences to parents.

Joshua Terry is an award-winning writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. He has written weekly film reviews for the Deseret News since 2013.

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Big-hearted ‘Instant Family’ isn’t for the whole family