I thought I had Instant Family pegged from its marketing campaign. It was sold on the basis of brightly coloured cinematography and two comedy stalwarts in Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, complete with a lightly absurd premise. That campaign, however, sells a different film to the one that Daddy’s Home director Sean Anders has made. This one is a great deal sweeter than it seems on the surface.
When we first meet Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne), they’re being asked constantly by friends and relatives about when they’ll have kids. They joke about fostering and neither takes it particularly seriously, but the germ of an idea soon grows. Before long, they’ve enrolled on a fostering course run by a ‘good cop, sassy cop’ duo played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer respectively. After an encounter at a rather ghoulish fair designed to introduce parents and children, Pete and Ellie decide to adopt a trio of kids – teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), timid Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and the adorable, but tantrum-prone Lita (Julianna Gamiz).
Wahlberg and Byrne are both piling on their most likeable shtick here, with the latter in particular excelling as a classic example of someone who thinks parenting is going to be a great deal easier than it is. Wahlberg, meanwhile, does his usual fast-talking lunk persona, suggesting to Spencer’s case worker that she’d have more success getting children fostered if they were rebranded as “rescue kids”.
The surprise, though, comes when these broad comedic personas turn and shift in the wake of the growing connection between them and the children. Isabela Moner, last seen in an unconventional double act with Benicio Del Toro in Sicario 2: Soldado, is excellent as the teenage Lizzy, who is rebellious and mouthy without devolving into a mere stereotype. Quiroz and Gamiz, meanwhile, are as adorable as they are mischievous, capable of turning on real emotion when the story calls for it.
And it’s the emotion that pushes Instant Family over the top. It’s a little caught between its comedic selling point and the schmaltz of its premise. This is most notable in the early stages, which are fairly light on jokes, other than from an incredibly hard-working Octavia Spencer, who appears to be busting a gut to find laughs somewhere. There’s a nice running gag about an ambitious blonde foster mum-to-be who basically wants to recreate the plot of The Blind Side, but this movie is a great deal more sentimentally charming than it is laugh-out-loud funny.
Anders, though, is wise enough to realise that his movie’s charm lies in its heart and focuses in the second half on those emotional developments. Byrne and Wahlberg are every bit as gifted dramatically as they are with comedy, but it’s Moner who proves to be the focal point of the movie’s successful third act emotional punches. As a girl coming to terms with a life that might not be the fantasy she wants it to be, she’s nothing short of terrific.
It would take a hard heart for someone not to have a tear in their eye at the conclusion of this one, however hard it leans on cliché. If you aren’t crying of your own accord, then the musical score will make sure you do. It’s not big and it’s not clever, but it works.
Dir: Sean Anders
Scr: Sean Anders, John Morris
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Julie Hagerty, Margo Martindale
Prd: Sean Anders, Stephen Levinson, John Morris, Mark Wahlberg, David Womack
DOP: Brett Pawlak
Music: Michael Andrews
Run time: 118 mins
Instant Family is in UK cinemas now.