More than almost any movie released this year, “Instant Family” wears its heart on its sleeve. Early on, as Mark Wahlberg’s (“Mile 22”) Pete and Rose Byrne’s (“Peter Rabbit”) Ellie walk through a foster care center, the camera lingers on a poster announcing “November is National Adoption Month!” Throughout the movie, characters work to make clear the plight of youth in the system and the importance of finding them loving homes. Before the credits roll, websites are given for viewers to find out more about fostering adopting children. “Instant Family” is a message movie, and it’s not a terribly subtle one.
There’s a cynical side of me that’s driven to criticize the film for this ham-fistedness — it’s the same side that’s led to my cementing a reputation as someone who likes, or at least has a knack for, writing negative reviews — but if it’s cool with you, I’d like to do something different. Instead of lambasting “Instant Family” for its cheesiness, I’d like to focus on how fundamentally good-hearted it is, and how genuine emotion driven by strong performances and a terrific sense of humor earn it every ounce of its schmaltz.
So many films try and fail for this sort of touching story. They go their entire runtimes tossing out cheap, predictable emotional moments sandwiched between equally dull jokes. “Instant Family” director Sean Anders is no stranger to this, having helmed “Daddy’s Home 2” — a truly sad attempt at a Christmas comedy — but here he strikes gold. Where “Daddy’s Home 2” seemed nearly incapable of landing a punchline, “Instant Family” establishes early on that it knows how to set up a great joke and how to follow through with it. It may be too early to say that Anders learned from the mistakes of his earlier films, but at the very least, he’s clearly learned to let the jokes breathe and allow the chemistry between his performers to speak for itself.
Wahlberg and Byrne head up the cast and play off each other well. The relationship between them that forms the core of the movie is easy to believe as a result. There’s little time spent establishing them; we’re just thrown into their marriage and expected to follow along. The stand-out of the cast is Isabela Moner (“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”) as Lizzy, the oldest of the foster siblings Pete and Ellie adopt. Moner already proved that she can partially salvage even a flat script with her work in the “Sicario” sequel, and with the stronger script present in “Instant Family,” she shines in a role that finds her perfectly portraying a teenager who has been in the system long enough to become jaded by it. The young actress’s work in the past year alone has proven her to be a talent to watch as her career continues.
For all the well-deserved praise there is to be heaped upon the main cast, a word must be spared for the supporting players. Octavia Spencer (“The Shape of Water”) and Tig Notaro (“Dog Days”) play Karen and Sharon, the two social workers who help Pete and Ellie as they enter the world of foster parenting, and they both lend vibrant performances to characters that another script may have left devoid of personality. Here, they become comedic highlights of the film, an odd couple that never fails to get a laugh. As Pete’s mother Sandy, perpetual scene-stealer (and University alum!) Margo Martindale (“Sneaky Pete”) gets perhaps the most emotionally resonant moment of a film chock-full of them. Everyone, onscreen and off, gives their all, and the finished product reflects that over and over again. “Instant Family” is a film with a goal, gooey edges and all; it’s a rousing, funny and deeply moving success.