You will forgive me if my expectations for Instant Family were low. Its director and co-writer, Sean Anders, has made a couple of movies I thought were reasonably funny (like the first Daddy’s Home) and more I thought were not (like Horrible Bosses 2). The trailers and the concept — happy-go-lucky couple are thrown for a loop when they adopt three children — suggested Instant Family would be a sappy, cliché-ridden mess. And the last time its male lead, Mark Wahlberg, appeared onscreen with Isabela Moner, the young woman who plays his daughter in Instant Family, the result was Transformers: The Last Knight. Gulp.

I was wrong. Instant Family didn’t just exceed my low expectations; it obliterated them. It’s the kind of honest, human comedy that’s so rare from Hollywood these days that when one finally comes along, you sit there in the theater in slack-jawed amazement and wonder: How does a movie like this happen?

The featurette below provides one answer to that question. For Anders, this wasn’t just another gig; it was a fictional version of his actual family’s story. Several years ago, Anders and his wife adopted three young siblings. Later he decided to make a movie about his experience. In Instant FamilyRose Byrne plays Ellie, the stand-in for Anders wife Beth. Moner is Lizzie, their oldest foster kid; her two younger siblings are played by the scene-stealing Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz. And Ansers cast Wahlberg as “Pete” — i.e. himself. There is an important lesson here: Always direct the movie version of your life so you can hire a handsome movie star to play yourself.

Anders exercised some artistic license picking his fictional avatar, and surely other parts of his story are condensed, altered, and dramatized. Still, he does an impressive job of taking the viewer on a warts-and-all journey with Pete and Ellie. Just as in Anders’ family, the idea of adopting older children starts as a joke. Then Pete and Ellie begin exploring the possibility more seriously. They take classes about foster care led by the droll, no-b.s. odd couple of Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro. They meet other prospective parents, and then their adoption stories get threaded through the movie; each class catches us up on their progress and their own highs and lows — a cleverly organic way to bring more of the foster experience into the film.

Some of the early scenes play a little stiff, but the whole thing opens up once Pete and Ellie take in Lizzie and her siblings. The jokes get funnier — I am not sorry for laughing every time Quiroz’s klutzy Juan fell down or got bonked on the head — and Anders doesn’t pull his punches about how new parenthood (adopted or otherwise) can suck. The usual Hollywood movie about this stuff would sugar coat everything. Instant Family puts in all the fights, and arguments, and tears. Some scenes are uncomfortable. It’s not always an easy film to watch.

Paramount

The title Instant Family isn’t quite right; things aren’t instantly magical for Pete and Ellie or their kids. It takes a lot of work to really bring them together (and when Lizzie’s mom reenters the picture that throws a serious curveball into their home life). Little by little, all that sweat equity in the characters and their struggles pays off, particularly during an an ending that is both very funny (thank you, completely random Joan Cusack cameo!) and definitely did not have me openly weeping in the theater. Not even a little! My allergies were acting up, that’s all. Bad pollen this time of year.

Paramount was wise to release Instant Family the week before Thanksgiving. This is the perfect movie for a family to see together while everyone is home for the holiday. There’s something in there for pretty much any conceivable audience. They’ll be reminded how much their loved ones piss them off sometimes — and why they still love them anyway. 

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