Being a lover of both kids and feel-good movies, and having a brother-in-law who was adopted and friends who have fostered children, I admit to being predisposed to enjoy Sean Anders’ new film “Instant Family.”
The premise of a loving couple in their forties (played by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) who flip houses for a living, deciding to flip their own home on its head by taking in a foster teen and her two adorable siblings, is one that grabbed my attention in the trailer. Getting to the theatre, I expected to be entertained by the antics of first-time parents and troubled kids portrayed on screen. I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Instant Family” is substantially more than that; it’s a realistic look at the foster care community made by people who clearly have first-hand experience, and a story full of reminders of why investing in fostering or adoption is a worthwhile adventure.
Here are some of the truths I was reminded of while watching the film:
There aren’t nearly enough homes
Beginning the path toward parenting, Pete and Ellie go through an eight-week foster care certification course, and viewers of the movie join them in learning some of the sobering statistics regarding kids in the system. The film says that over half a million kids are in foster care waiting to be adopted by a family that can love them for life. While that’s based on American numbers, there are plenty of children in Canada who also need homes. For every 1,000 kids in this country, at least 9 of them are in foster care.
Like Lizzy, Juan, and Lita in the film, who have been removed from their mom with a drug problem, the majority of foster kids come from family backgrounds tainted by addiction, abuse, and abandonment. What they need is a consistent community of people who are committed to caring for them. When these children grow up without this, the facts show that many end up with the same kinds of issues as their unfit biological parents; homeless, incarcerated, or dead within the first two years out of foster care. There aren’t nearly enough loving people with safe homes willing to take these kids in.
You don’t need to be special
When first considering the possibility of becoming foster parents, after the idea was sparked by an off-handed joke, Pete says what a lot of the audience probably thinks, “People who take in foster kids are really special; the kind of people who volunteer when it’s not even a holiday.” This makes a great excuse for those of us uncomfortable with the thought of raising kids who aren’t our own flesh and blood, and a high pedestal for those who might. Yet “Instant Family” does a fantastic job of debunking this view, as those watching will find Pete and Ellie to be a relatable couple who fight like they’re married, sometimes want to quit when the going gets tough, and aren’t any more special than the rest of us.
Things that matter are hard
At a low point in the film, when the kids have pulled away one too many times and the parents feel frustrated, scared, and lost as to what to do next, Pete’s mom comes in to bring some perspective. She reminds them that the way they’re feeling is how their foster kids feel too, every day, as they’ve gotten passed from one family to the next, not knowing if they’ll ever find a home or truly feel loved. Her quote, “Things that matter are hard.” may sound a bit trite, but at the moment in the film, it’s the reminder Pete and Ellie need to not lose hope.
Fostering or adopting kids is a definite challenge, one that might have some people walking out of the certification course before it really even starts and others crying in their support group (as seen on screen), but no one can argue that opening up your home to children in need of one doesn’t matter. It’s hard, but things that matter often are.
Kids need cosmic connections and so do you
One of the most poignant scenes of the film is when Ellie is sitting in the fostering class holding a bunch of red strings. The others from the class are standing in a circle around her, each holding the other end of one of those strings. They each have a paper sign on their chest with a significant person written on it: teacher, friend, neighbour, etc. Ellie’s sign identifies her as the foster child. One of the course facilitators explains that the strings symbolize important connections that the child makes when they are in a home. She proceeds to cut the strings. Sadly, this disconnect happens every time the child needs to change homes.
The theme of these connections is developed throughout the movie as Ellie and Pete consider how to know if they have a “cosmic connection” with the kids they may adopt. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a love at first sight relationship. Yet after many ups and downs, the viewers find that not only do the foster children need these divine, meant-to-be, stable relationships with the community around them, Pete and Ellie do too. Through their support group, relatives, and each other, Pete and Ellie end up cultivating more than just a bond with their foster kids, but also cosmic connections with the people in their lives who have helped make them an “Instant Family.”
The result is a movie that will not only make you laugh (and maybe cry), but also a story based on real life that will encourage you to think more about how you can get involved in the world of foster care or support those who are.