‘Instant Family’: A Holiday Movie with a Heart — and a Mission to Help Foster Kids

“Instant Family” not only depicts foster care and the complications of the child protection system, but it asks the audience to visit to find out ways to help, including being a CASA Volunteer. While there is no CASA Volunteer in the lives of the kids depicted, it’s a great movie to share with someone you want to introduce to your work as a CASA Volunteer or your support of ProKids. You can see a trailer here.

“Instant Family” includes the kind of silliness that makes up many a holiday family movie, but in between the gags are a lot of heartfelt moments and some substantive information about the challenges of foster care.

The film, which opened Nov. 15 in Cincinnati, stars Mark Wahlberg as Pete and Rose Byrne as Ellie, novice foster parents who are moved to take in a group of three siblings. Most of the humor comes from the parents trying to learn overnight to care for children, to deal with the intense emotions of everyon involved and their loss of freedom, privacy and a clean house. But the heart comes from the realistic way the children and the parents find one another, against the backdrop of the foster care system.

When we meet Pete and Ellie, they are house flippers who haven’t gotten around to talking about having children. When Ellie introduces Pete to a website filled with available foster children, their alternating fear and enthusiasm reflect the complicated emotions many foster parents bring to the role. Their training class is filled with stereotypical parents, mostly played for laughs, but includes an single mom who believes that her foster-to-adopt experience will be a real-life “The Blind Side.” Given the lack of context in that popular film, it is interesting that this one – filled with more complex situations – plays the 2009 movie’s plot as unrealistic and downright laughable.

Pete and Ellie’s support group is led by two foster care agency social workers. If there is a governmental social worker involved, we never see them, but these two – often sweetly ironic – fill in the audience on some of the most gut-wrenching issues in foster care. Played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, they patiently explain the challenges not only of the particular children who move in with Pete and Ellie, but also the larger challenges of the child protection system: the lack of foster parents, the disappointment when a biological parent cannot live differently, and the lingering impact of child trauma.

Each of the siblings has their own reaction to foster care and to Pete and Ellie as caregivers. The oldest, played by Isabela Moner, is a teen who is strident and ultra-confident, masking her pain. With the all-to-familiar faked nonchalance of a teenager – as well as her ever-present fear of rejection – Moner plays her role with skill beyond her years. We never forget she is a child herself, despite her constant insistence that she has more life experience than her foster parents. Realistically, the film depicts her street skills, her ability to manipulate those around her and her struggles to find a way to have a relationship with foster parents while still hoping that her biological mother will be able to give them a home. Tenderly, she also shows how an oldest child who has had to grow up too quickly cares so deeply for her siblings even when they are safe.

The second child, played with vulnerability by Gustavo Quiroz, is affected by his trauma entirely differently. Fearful, always thinking things are his fault, he slowly opens up to his foster parents enough to accept an embrace and call them mom and dad. The youngest, a charming Julianna Gamiz, is angry, confused and hurt. In a particularly poignant scene, she imitates the kind of parenting she has received by playing restaurant with her dolls. The horror that Ellie exhibits is ours as well, facing the reality that children will repeat the cycle as adults without safety, permanence and nurturing.

There are a number of moments that do not ring as consistently true. The children’s previous foster parents are played for laughs and there is a brief mention that perhaps they care for foster children because of financial compensation. The extended family embraces the foster children as part of their family in a way that seems premature when the children have not been released for adoption. And when, in a series of events played for comedy, Pete and Ellie are arrested for assault, the children are only removed for a night.

But overall, it’s a film that will explain a lot about foster care to a lot of people. Sean Anders, the writer and director, is drawing from his own family’s foster-to-adopt experience and is not afraid to share what he and his wife have learned. There’s discussion about the poor outcomes for foster care teens, the challenges of trauma reflected in both a child’s anger and how a child withdraws, the emotional wallop visits with biological family can cause, and even the awfulness of moving from place to place with a trash bag.

“Instant Family” is the kind of feel-good holiday movie that not only affirms the goodness of people, it provokes some hard thinking about the child protection system and the children who make their way through it.

Rated PG-13 for some rough language, scenes involving sexting and sexual references.

–Julie Kemble Borths, ProKids Communication Manager and CASA Volunteer