The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Pat Padua’s review of “Instant Family,” click here.
The primary point of trailers and commercials and other promotional materials isn’t to accurately represent the movie; the primary point is to get butts into seats. Which is probably why the trailer and commercials for “Instant Family” were what they were.
In the movie (which is inspired by the real-life experiences of director and co-writer Sean Anders and his wife), Ellie and Pete (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne), who live a Chip and Joanna Gaines-ian life as the owners of a house-flipping company, decide to foster-to-adopt a kid. They’re one of the rare families who not only are OK with taking in an older kid, but actually want one. They hit it off with 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner, in a performance that really captures the experience of a kid forced to live beyond her years), who is a package deal with two younger siblings.
The trailer suggests something Hallmark-y: There are pratfalls and laughs and a moment when Ellie and Pete say just the right thing while Lizzy is crying. Plus you add in Byrne and Wahlberg, notable comedic actors (well, she’s notable; he is … sometimes in movies that are sometimes funny) and it’s easy to assume it’ll be an hour and 15 minutes of zany with 15 minutes of emotions sprinkled throughout.
And all of that happens. But that’s not all that happens.
Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who play caseworkers, drive home the difficulties for kids in the foster system and what their foster parents can expect. The frightening statistics on the prospects for kids who age out of the system without having found a permanent placement are clearly laid out (in real life, 20 percent immediately become homeless, less than 3 percent will earn a college degree by 26, and 70 percent of girls will become pregnant by 21). Ellie and Pete attend a support group where foster parents share how their kids have threatened them with violence. Lita, the youngest of the siblings, says some horrid things that you know she heard somewhere, and you know those things have been directed at her.
One thing nonfictional parents should be aware of: The movie touches on emotional, physical and sexual abuse, as well as addiction and substance abuse. It’s all handled well, but isn’t appropriate for young kids, even if they’d be OK hearing an occasional rhymes-with-sit curse word.
“Instant Family” is a better movie than the commercials suggest because it’s more than what the commercials suggest. The laughs are sometimes silly, but often come as moments of relief that the family has made it through something tough. The emotional scenes — both happy and sad — are genuinely emotional. The dark moments are genuinely dark.
It’s not uncommon for comedy trailers to contain nearly every good joke in the actual movie, so when you get into the theater you find there’s nothing new to see. “Instant Family” is the opposite. Yes, you get what the trailer advertised. But you also get much more.