“Things that matter are hard.” That’s the lesson a new father teaches in “Instant Family,” a comedy-drama about a couple (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) who are unable to conceive children of their own and who choose to adopt – not just one child, but three siblings.
Director and co-writer Sean Anders (“That’s My Boy”) based the film on his own experience: In 2012, he and his wife adopted siblings from foster care – ages 6, 3 and 18 months. In a message to viewers, Anders explains that he hopes the movie “doesn’t pull punches.” Turns out, it’s a little too manipulative to be a truly honest portrayal of family.
It’s manipulation, in fact, that leads the couple to adopt in the first place. Pete Wagner (Wahlberg) initially resists the suggestion by his wife, Ellie (Byrne), that they take in a foster child. But when he starts to read the stories of children who need a parent – and sees photo after photo of cute waifs – he melts.
Shouldn’t the children’s stories come first?
The film spends too much time on classes. Although these scenes offer a few choice lines of dialogue lines from parenting facilitators played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer, they feel like a distraction from the Wagners’ home troubles, as they take in 15-year-old Lizzie (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings.
The kids are, of course, a handful – from the accident-prone Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) to frequent tantrums thrown by Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Naturally, it’s the teenager who’s the biggest headache, and Moner, a singer as well as an actress, turns in the movie’s best performance as a character who must navigate the emotional shift from adolescent toughness to tender vulnerability.
It also takes some time for the children to warm up to their new parents, but when they eventually do, there’s a predictable song cue – George Harrison’s exuberant pop classic “What is Life?” – to ring in that plot development. (A more curious choice pops up in a scene featuring a sexual predator: Bauhaus’ edgy 1982 cover of Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle.”)
The movie relies heavily on metaphor. In its very first shot, the Wagners open the door to a run-down house that they plan to renovate themselves. Just in case you miss the strained symbolism, Pete later compares flipping a neglected home for a profit to fixing up an unwanted child.
Anders previously directed the tasteless Adam Sandler comedy “That’s My Boy” and specializes in a kind of farce of the broken family. Emotionally, “Instant Family” is a step up from such cheaper laughs. But while the movie doesn’t shy away from confronting the obstacles of foster parenthood, it never fully earns its happy ending.