Film Reviews

‘Instant Family’ review: Heartfelt, Heartwarming and Heartrending

An endearing comedy about the struggles of foster care shine a light on an important issue, as well as bringing many a tear to the eye.


“Instant Family”

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty and Octavia Spencer


Sometimes there is just a film that assaults you right in the place that hurts. Sometimes there is a film that cuts straight through your walls and aims right for the jugular. My Achilles’ heel when it comes to media is apparently children in need of love and attention. Instant Family has that in spades.

A hilarious dramedy with plenty of heart stars Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg as suburban married couple Ellie and Pete Wagner. Though initially having decided not to have kids, jibes from family members make them consider extending their family, leading them to enrol in a foster parenting course led by Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) who debunk all of their idealistic ideas of “fixing” children they come into contact with. The continuing interference of family members convince Ellie and Pete to foster despite their reservations. At a ‘foster fair’, Lizzy (Isabela Moner) leaves an impression upon Ellie and Pete with her acerbic and aloof manner.

When enquiring about fostering Lizzy, they discover that her mother has been arrested for being a drug addict and that Lizzy also comes with two younger siblings, Juan and Lita. Though this is more than they initially signed on for, the Wagners decide to meet the trio to decide. Eventually, the three siblings move in with the Wagners and it does not take long for things to start becoming hectic and fraught. The dreams and the hopes that Ellie and Pete had with this family are constantly challenged as the reality behind the shiny veneer of fostering is revealed.

While this doesn’t seem like the recipe for an incredible dramedy, there’s something about this film that just works that is difficult to put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the real-life experience director and co-writer Sean Anders has, having fostered three siblings himself. Perhaps it’s the stunning performances from Rose Byrne and Isabela Moner in particular that help this film. Perhaps it’s that I first watched this film on hour three of an eight-hour plane journey to New York, 2 weeks after the death of my father, majorly dehydrated and tired from a full day at work. I mean, that is definitely a contributing factor.

I suppose the main reason why the film resonated so much with me, and why it made me cry for pretty much the entire duration, plus then a full 20-minute crying session afterwards, is that I work with disadvantaged children on a daily basis. In the character on Lizzy, I saw half of the children in my class, and that literally deconstructed every ounce of emotional hardness I have cultivated as an educator and as a grieving child. It’s a heartbreaking reality that Lizzy’s story is not a fiction. It is a stark reality for a huge number of children in the world and, while some of them like Lizzy, go through the heartbreak of losing their parent, lots don’t get fostered and end up lost in the system, often having huge repercussions for the rest of their lives. More children still don’t get taken away from their families and suffer greatly too, with huge issues being caused by the negligence that they suffer at the hands of parents who are ill-equipped to deal with children. It’s a reality that I see every day, and there’s not a night that goes by where I don’t have to fight the urge to take a child home to protect them. (It’s totally illegal, I promise I won’t.)

The beating, and aching, heart of this film is Lizzy. As the eldest child, she has had to grow up too fast. As part of the system, she is accustomed to caring for her siblings and mistrusting adults to look out for her. At only fifteen, the only person she can trust to look after herself and her brother and sister is herself, while simultaneously longing for the same kind of affection to be lavished upon her from the person who matters most: her mother. Continually, she tries and tries to gain that affection and is rebuffed, causing her to take that anger inwards, making it more difficult for her to open up to other people and have faith and trust in her own ability to be loved. It’s an astounding portrayal by Isabela Moner, being able to play both doting and attentive to her siblings and defensive and confrontation around her guardians. It is her development and her change throughout the film that is the largest triumph. At its simplest, Instant Family is about Lizzy opening herself up to being loved by her new family.

This film takes such a tricky and meaty theme and treats it with unerring respect and nuance, with a sprinkling of humour to guide the way and cleanse the palette. I challenge any stable adult to watch this film and not be affected at Isabela Moner’s stunning depth, as well as Rose Byrne’s accomplished performance as struggling mother.

Instant Family is released on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital on Monday 10th June.

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