Director/co-writer Sean Anders really takes to heart the “instant” part of his new family dramedy “Instant Family.” The film drops us right into the lives of Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) with little fanfare, as if to say to the audience, “Catch up, guys, we’ve got a lot of story to tell.” It’s not too difficult to pick up what Anders is putting down, as Pete and Ellie are the kind of nice, upper-middle class, fast-talking, attractive white couple who frequently populate this kind of film. They’re missing one thing: kids. As business partners who flip rundown houses, they’ve never met a challenge they couldn’t tackle, so off to foster-parenting class they go. They just don’t know just how big of a challenge they’re in for.
Anders, known for the “Daddy’s Home” movies and other broad comedies, drew largely from his own experiences as an adoptive parent for the script, co-written with John Morris. Anders and his wife adopted a set of siblings, and that’s exactly what Pete and Ellie do after cautiously approaching a group of teenagers at an adoption fair. The sassy, defiant Lizzy (Isabela Moner) makes an impression, and it turns out she comes with two incredibly cute and incredibly difficult younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz).
Anders smartly punctures any representational issues in the tightly packed script. When Pete worries about looking like a “white savior” to kids of color, the sardonic social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) sarcastically offer to write “whites only” on their file, much to the couple’s chagrin. And yet, it does end up being a white-savior story in a way — the married, well-off white couple ends up being more equipped to raise three kids than their mother, Carla (Joselin Reyes), who struggles with addiction and incarceration and doesn’t feel ready to parent, no matter how much Lizzy wants to be reunited with her.
Moner, who proved to be a strong screen presence in “Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado” and “Transformers: The Last Knight,” gives perhaps her fiercest and most complex performance yet as a foster teen who is more adult than kid and has a harder time accepting a “new” mom and dad. She truly sells the sorrow and ache Lizzy feels for her own mother, while struggling to accept that she needs to receive the support Pete and Ellie offer her and her siblings.
It’s not all heart-wrenching fights and impossible issues. “Instant Family” is also incredibly funny, deftly using humor to address any potential social-issue blind spots. Anders stacks the supporting cast with scene-stealing character actresses such as Margo Martindale and Joan Cusack, while Spencer and Notaro deserve a spinoff series for their smack-talking social worker duo.
While the pace of “Instant Family” can be relentless, Anders hits that sweet spot of hilarious and heartwarming, where the sweetness and tears are well earned.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 16 in general release