Dammit I was not expecting to cry during this movie. Wahlberg reuniting with the director of Daddy’s Home 2 does not sound like the setup for a emotional rollercoaster. The bland, gauzy cinematography with which these people’s airy, open plan homes are shot should deaden one’s senses. Everything about it seems like it packs the punch of a half tablet of asprin, but god damn if by the ending I ain’t welling up at the ability of this unlikely family to make it work.
Like, the fact that the our leads are the co-owners of a successful house flipping business should be insufferable enough. So many movies where the down-to-earth, relatable faces of the American middle class are actually fake nonsense people. This isn’t reality. These folks come out and complain that their lives are too comfortable, who is that? It seems to be a fundamental impossibility that any of these sorts of films could grapple with what the reality of many of our lives are.
Their privilege is never quite challenged, but they do at least acknowledge it. The fact that they approach becoming foster parents with at first somewhat inappropriate frivolity is cause for discussion, especially as these are actual human lives they’re taking responsibility over. Their ability to house and provide for three children without materially changing their expenses is remarked upon I guess. But did we have to point out that the kids’ previous neglectful foster parents were economically disadvantaged? Like, that’s the only exposure we get to any poor people at all?
Whatever, it’s a small complaint and not really what the movie is about. Marky Mark and his wife Rose Byrne find themselves inexplicably drawn to becoming foster parents to three rambunctious kids of fifteen, ten and six years old. Oh my God are the kids amazing. While Wahlberg still feels like he half became a movie star by accident, leaving Rose Byrne (expectedly amazing ofc) to do most of the heavy lifting on the parent side; they could not be matched against more able batting partners.
Isabela Moner, the oldest, who was great in last year’s godawful Sicario sequel is probably on her way to becoming a legit star. She’s centre stage in this broad family comedy and is asked to play a child abuse survivor, somehow she carries it off without the film being entirely upset. You’d expect either the comedy or the drama to feel fraudulent, be out of place, and yet she packs it all into this proud, wounded, irrepressible character. I’m thinking of a scene that is carried out in near silence, in a single wide shot, that manages to be profoundly affecting in a way that I had no idea was coming.
The younger two, Gustavo Quiroz as Juan and Julianna Gamiz as Lita, are spared the more emotional beats. We’re told they’re too young to remember the time spent with their mother, so their challenges settling into a new dynamic express themselves more comedically. Quiroz plays a nervous type wonderfully, with this tremulous physicality and some real choice crying faces. Gamiz is an explosion of unrestrained energy, and the way that’s used to joke about the inconstancy of youth is fantastic.
It’s telling enough that from the outset, you just get who these kids are. I think the film doesn’t trust itself though because it wants to make it explicit. Time and again. You think the metaphor of them building a family while actually fixing up a house is trite — wait until they actually say it out loud. The parents attend a support group every so often where all the subtext is said aloud.
I’d hate it, but the support group is led by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro. Maybe I’m at fault, I never once saw a single trailer for this, it crept up relatively quietly — but how the hell did I not know that this was a Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro double act joint? They’re fantastic. There’s some tiny subplots that occur here, most frustratingly the hints of this fundamentalist Christian couple slowly warming to a pair of gay foster parents. Like straight filmmakers thinking that a hug is adequate reparations for a history of abuse.
Maybe I’m being too mean. This is a movie which genuinely, wholeheartedly believes that even if a hug can’t fix things, it’s a good first step. I’d usually want to slap anything that came at me with that outlook. Not this though. It actually feels like it wants to do good, it’s actually putting in the work to understand what it’s dealing with.
The film begins with the credit that it is based on a true story, which felt kinda unspecific. Only reading about it later did I find out that writer/director Sean Anders based it upon his own experience with fostering. I guess this was something that he was desperately aching to make. Walking out of the theatre I got thinking about the insincerity of something like the Adam Sandler vehicle Blended. About how they kept saying they wanted to reflect the experience of a lot of contemporary families, and how they didn’t.
Anders has largely spent his career feeling like a hired gun. It’s nice to see him really giving a shit.
Instant Family is currently screening in UK cinemas.