- The new comedy, Instant Family, contains plenty of slapstick humor, but it’s hard to think of a single problem or issue in foster care that does not come up. Tweet This
- How many of us would welcome three abused, neglected, and ill-behaved children into our homes just because we saw their sweet photos on a website one night? Tweet This
Does it take a “special” person to be a foster parent? This is the question at the heart of the new movie, Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg (“Pete”) and Rose Byrne (“Ellie”). On the one hand, Pete and Ellie are an unremarkable couple who have achieved some measure of success flipping houses. (There’s even a joke at the beginning about them watching “Fixer Upper” together.) But on the other, how many of us would welcome three abused, neglected, and ill-behaved children into our homes just because we saw their sweet photos on a website one night?
Pete and Ellie have drifted into their 30s focusing on their careers and not thinking much about when or how they are going to have children, but when Pete suggests that he doesn’t want to be an old father and jokes that they should just get a 5-year-old, Ellie takes the suggestion seriously. What follows is a funny, crude, but not inaccurate take on the journey of foster parents trying to adopt. Which is unsurprising since it’s based on the experience of the movie’s director and producer, Sean Anders.
Initially, of course, Pete is gung-ho about the idea, saying that he and Ellie are good at seeing the potential in things and fixing them up. In the first few minutes of the movie, he manages to compare foster kids to rescue dogs and houses that are falling apart. This kind of early idealism, though rarely uttered so clumsily, is not uncommon among foster parents I’ve interviewed.
The people who are part of their training program are also easily recognizable. Gay couples and evangelicals are disproportionately represented among foster parents, as are couples who have not been able to have children through natural means. As a secular, heterosexual couple who have never tried to have kids on their own, Pete and Ellie are probably the least representative.
The movie contains plenty of slapstick humor, but it’s hard to think of a single problem or issue in foster care that does not come up. For example, Ellie’s family thinks it’s a terrible idea for them to take in someone else’s “damaged goods.” They start off thinking of taking in one child but then end up with three because they don’t want to break up a sibling group. Pete asks the social worker, Karen (played by Octavia Spencer), whether it’s okay that they are considering fostering kids who are Hispanic, wanting to know if it will seem as if they have a “white savior” complex. Karen explains that there are not enough foster parents of any color to care about this. Describing the couple who are caring for the children when Pete and Ellie first meet them, Karen suggests that they are mostly doing it for the money.
Moreover, the teenage girl in the group is used to acting as the mother for her siblings and thinks of herself as an adult and not someone who would have to live by someone else’s rules anymore. The children have trouble sleeping and eating, and they have difficulty adjusting to a routine. Pete and Ellie’s marriage suffers under the stress—they even wonder for a minute if they should give the kids back. This is a significant reason for the high turnover rate among foster parents.
And then there is the biological mother of the children, who's been in and out of jail and using drugs but shows up wanting the children back. Substance abuse is among the most common reasons that children end up in foster care. But Pete and Ellie are faced with the possibility that after everything they have done to build up a trusting and loving relationship with the children over the course of several months, the children may be sent back to their mother. Karen pulls no punches about the fact that family reunification is the name of the game. And as long as the mother has remained clean and followed a reunification plan, she is the default caregiver.
The movie is a comedy, so you can probably guess how things work out. In real life, things might have just as easily gone differently. The truth is that couples like Pete and Ellie are special because unlike so many other Americans with the time and resources, they decide to bring a stranger’s children into their home. But if enough of the public take the movie’s message to heart, maybe Pete and Ellie won’t be so special after all.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
*Photo credit: Paramount Pictures