The foster-care comedy Instant Family has more heart than laughs, but enough of the former to squeak by.
The movie is written and directed by Sean Anders, whose credits include the not entirely family-oriented Hot Tub Time Machine, and who may not seem an obvious for the material, but whose qualifications are actually pretty good — the movie is based on his own experience. In his 40s, he and his wife decided to become foster parents to three children.
Anders has fictionalized the story, drawing on the experiences of other foster parents in order to bring us the story of home renovators Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), who decide to foster impulsively, and probably for the wrong reasons. Ellie has been thinking of adoption, which leads her to consider foster care, which leads her to a manipulative website, which leads to red-rimmed eyes and maneuvering designed to bring Pete into her emotional sphere.
Pete and Ellie sensibly sign up for prep sessions run by experienced counselors (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer, who make a funny yin-yang pairing). They get encouragement but also key advice about how difficult the road ahead is likely to be. Still, they plunge ahead, taking on a challenge about as tough as it could be — caring for three children, including an older teen (Isabella Moner) who is determined to reunite with a biological mother just out of jail on drug charges.
There are also racial differences, prompting Pete to express his anxiety to the counselors by invoking the movie Avatar, comparing himself to Sam Worthington's earth character inserting himself into the inner-workings of Pandora. (This is Anders strategy — using comedy to address a fraught situation in a disarming way). He's told not to worry — the system has way more children than parents, and needs all the qualified help it can get.
Anders keeps the movie inside the realm of comedy even has he keeps an eye on the underlying seriousness of the situation, and on the inevitable hardships that foster families face. Pete and Ellie are quickly overwhelmed and undermanned (even with grandmother Margo Martindale on hand), and the movie is honest enough to show the couple giving voice to grave doubts.
This feels informed by Anders' own experience, as do the way Pete and Ellie encounter and handle behavioral problems — during a meltdown in a supermarket aisle, Pete "helpfully" volunteers to go get the car, and I think we've all been there.
Some things, though, feel ill-judged, particularly a thread that finds the parents interceding in the daughter's creepy relationship with an older man. It's played for laughs but isn't really all that funny. It is, however, essential to the plot, which culminates in a courtroom drama that involves the older daughter's wish to be reunited with her birth mother.
Emotional and legal issues are sorted out, and given heft by an able cast, especially Byrne, whose tricky relationship with the character played by Moner (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) is nicely handled by both actresses.
Instant Family. Directed by Sean Anders. With Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale, Isabella Moner and Julie Hagarty. Distributed by Paramount.
Running time: 117 minutes
Parents guide: PG-13 (language)