For anyone who’s ever considered expanding their family through foster care, there's a new film here to tell you being “perfect” isn’t required — all you need is a big heart and the guts to show up. Take my word for it. I'm a mother who adopted out of foster care, and Instant Family gets much of the experience so right, offering a true-to-life window into the process, the heartache, and the joy of loving kids who need forever families.
The insight is firsthand: the movie was made by director Sean Anders, who, along with his wife, adopted three children out of the foster care system seven years ago. With Instant Family, Anders took great care to tell a story that wasn’t just true to his own personal experience, but would be a universal and relatable look at the process.
Pete and Ellie, played by Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg, are a content married couple who, after spending years building a house-flipping business, decide they want a family. After stumbling on a website explaining just how many kids are stuck in the system, they decide on foster care. No spoilers, but the experience takes them on an emotional roller coaster filled with profound joy, sadness, and a whole lot of love.
Who else but another foster parent would know about all the stuffed bears kids collect from each of their court appearances?
Pete and Ellie might be better looking than me and my husband, but the trials and tribulations of this movie family felt terribly familiar to my own family’s experience with foster care. Who else but another foster parent would know about all the stuffed bears kids collect from each of their court appearances? Who else but someone who’s been through it could know about all the awkward conversations, crazy emotions and surreal moments foster families go through with such specific detail? The result is a movie that allows foster families space to experience happy moments alongside the difficult moments, and one that I hope inspires other families to explore foster care.
From the first foster parenting class to the family Thanksgiving table, Ellie and Pete struggle to find the right words to use to describe their intensely emotional experiences as foster parents. It can be hard to find the right thing to say to your foster kids, and often the results are cringeworthy.
During our own 13-weeks of class prior to becoming foster parents, one entire hour-long session was dedicated to standing in front of the group to speak out loud every weird sex term we’ve ever heard. It was a room full of dopey, middle-aged couples writing “tittles” and “orgasm” on a white board. After the total embarrassment wore off, the class leaders explained if we were comfortable talking about body parts, it might make it easier for one of our foster kids to talk about their own abuse.
Talking about trauma and feelings can be uncomfortable, but it’s a critical part of bonding and processing loss and trauma. It also happens to make for some of the movie’s funniest moments.
Ellie and Pete attend parenting classes in Instant Family and the bonds formed among foster parents through that experience are all too real. Just like Pete and Ellie, our foster parent classes were full of all sorts of folks — gay, straight, religious, single career women, retired couples looking to give back — all with their own stories to tell and baggage to unload. And boy howdy do you unload it all over those several weeks.
We referred to our weekly Monday night classes as “baby church,” because we left each time renewed, a little more prepared and a little more determined to do what we could to help.
In the film, the class is led by two women hilariously and lovingly played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer, who help guide them through the process. Professionals like these are a lifeline for foster families trying to meet the needs of kids while navigating the system.
Six years after our own family’s adoption was final, we still keep in contact with the woman who placed our daughter with us. We call her our daughter’s “Fairy Godmother.”
Throughout the movie, Ellie and Pete wonder if they’re really 'special' enough to be foster parents. Their extended families wonder if they are, too.
One of the most honest moments in the movie comes when Ellie and Pete meet the kids’ birth mother. Fresh out of jail with just a few months of sobriety under her belt, they see her for the first time not as the villain who neglected her kids because of a drug addiction, but as someone who instills a feeling of guilt in them around taking her children.
It’s a guilty feeling I recognized clearly from my own experience.
I met my daughter’s birth mother only once. We were at the courthouse. In my mind and heart I held all the ways in which I knew she had harmed the little girl I loved so much. As I was waiting for her to show up, I was ready to hate her. I resented the visits that took the baby away from me to some undisclosed location. I hated that her rights to the baby I was raising were more important to the court than my own. I was angry that I wasn’t the one to give birth to my little girl.
Then I met her. She was small. A mess, really. But in her eyes I saw our baby. Hers and mine. Almost involuntarily I grabbed her and held her tight for a little too long and cried. And although I’ve had no contact with her since, I think of her often. I wish that she could see how well our girl is doing. I felt then and still feel now a sense of guilt for raising the baby she couldn’t. So I do the best I can for the both of us.
Throughout the movie, Ellie and Pete wonder if they’re really “special” enough to be foster parents. Their extended families wonder if they are, too. Ellie and Pete are far from perfect. They have potty mouths and get arrested for assaulting a school janitor who sends Lizzy dick pics. But it’s their imperfections and their humanity that makes them great parents. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Pete bonds with Lizzy by letting her take a sledgehammer to a kitchen he was demolishing to work out some of her anger and frustration. It is a metaphor for breaking down walls of all sorts and an example of how kids don’t need you to be Mr. Rogers and say all the right things. They just need to you care about them and do your level best to give them skills to cope.
Foster parents are people just like you.
Over the course of the story, Ellie and Pete inspire family members who once viewed foster care as something they would rather avoid to sign up. And it’s my hope this movie will do the same for millions of others.
It's true Instant Family is a Hollywood movie and no one in the real world is as beautiful as Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne and the gorgeous children who play their kids (Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz). But this lovely, funny rendering of the foster care experience is doing important work showing these families as they are.
At the end of the movie, Ellie, Pete, their kids and a whole crowd of people take their photo with the judge once the adoption is final. It’s something most families do on adoption day. During the credits you see dozens of other family pictures on their own adoption days and as they scrolled by I couldn’t help but look at every single one between sobs. They reminded me of my little family’s day in court and how grateful I am to the foster care system that gave me everything.
Instant Family is a movie made by people who clearly feel the same way.
If you’re inspired to learn more about the foster care system or how you can help, visit InstantFamily.org, the film’s companion website dedicated to helping connect families and foster kids.