The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Instant Family

A movie review should always be about the film and never about the critic, but in the case of Instant Family, a little self-disclosure seems important given that this particular critic's perception of it was greatly influenced by personal experience. Twenty years ago, while my writing career was in its early stages, I worked for about twelve months in a foster care program. My wife and I are also the adoptive parents of two children. In fact, as of this writing, we are in the midst of adopting the second. The subject of Instant Family is something I know a great deal about. For whatever flaws it may have -- and there are certainly a few -- this is a movie that gets a lot right. Considering that a fair number of others get things wrong or reinforce harmful myths, it deserves praise for accuracy.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play Pete and Ellie Wagner. They decide to start a family, choosing to adopt a slightly older child instead of a newborn. After going through all the requisite orientation classes (led by social workers Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro), they take part in an event designed to match prospective parents with foster kids who might become adoptable. Enter Lizzie (Sicario: Day of the Soldado's Isabela Moner), a smart-aleck teen. Pete and Ellie respond to her spunkiness and decide to open their home to her. But, to their surprise, Lizzie comes with two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). The former is emotionally sensitive, the latter capable of hair-raising tantrums. Suddenly, the Wagners find themselves with an entire clan.

With that set-up in place, the story proceeds to track the ups and downs of the process. Instant Family is extremely perceptive about both. After a predictable honeymoon phase, some challenges present themselves. Lizzie, for instance, has had to act as a parent to Juan and Lita as they've been shuffled from one foster home to another, so she doesn't cede those duties to Pete and Ellie easily. There's also the looming threat of their mother, who claims to have sobered up and may want to make a play to regain custody. There are fights and meltdowns to contend with, and at times, the couple feels overwhelmed.

On a more positive note, the Wagners work hard to create a stable, structured environment, which brings out the best in the children. Juan and Lita especially respond to the newfound sense of security. Bonds are formed, the joys of parenting are discovered, and solutions to problems are stumbled upon.

Instant Family recognizes that foster care placement and adoption are journeys. Sometimes things go smoothly. In other moments, you have to buckle up and hang on. When it works out, the journey is amazing, though, enriching you in ways you never imagined were possible. Director/co-writer Sean Anders based the movie on his own experiences. That personal quality comes through loud and clear. This could have been a cheap, manipulative picture. Instead, it has a sense of authenticity that draws you in, touching your heart in the right ways, for the right reasons. Who knows -- it may even inspire some viewers to consider adopting.

Because it's a comedy, Instant Family tries to put a humorous spin on some of the ideas it presents. As a concession to the need to earn laughs, the movie occasionally plays things in a broad, exaggerated manner that isn't necessarily realistic. One of the other foster parents, for example, seems to be trying to emulate The Blind Side. A scene in which Ellie and Pete confront a boy they wrongly believe is sexually harassing Lizzie is another case where the material seems to be straining a bit. The comedy works best when it springs more organically from the situations. Ellie's Thanksgiving dinner outburst at unsupportive relatives is a great instance of truth and humor melding perfectly.

To be honest, the film works best in its non-comedic moments, when it simply observes the course of fostering and adoption. Instant Family has especially strong performances from Wahlberg, Byrne, and Moner. They create characters we both identify with and care about. That, in turn, keeps us invested in what happens as these people open their hearts to one another, gradually realizing that love vastly overcomes biology. All of it builds to a final scene that might just leave you with a lump in your throat. It left one in mine, because I've been there.

In the category of movies about adoption, this one definitely goes on the "good" list.

( out of four)

Instant Family is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.

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