Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne Become Foster Parents in Authentic and Funny ‘Instant Family’

Inspired by director/co-writer Sean Anders’ own life, the feel-good comedy “Instant Family” stars Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as Pete and Ellie, a successful married couple who find themselves seriously considering parenthood for the first time in their 40s. After Pete makes an offhand joke about adopting a five-year-old so he wouldn’t feel like so old of a dad, Ellie takes the comment to heart and looks into fostering, thus beginning a crazy journey that ends up impacting five lives.

Byrne, with her usual piquant energy, pairs nicely with Wahlberg here, and Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer make an unlikely comedic duo as the professional Sharon and personable Karen, the pair of social workers who help guide Pete, Ellie, and other foster parents through their journey. The makeup of such a group is pretty much what one would expect — Christian do-gooders, a husband and wife that have had trouble conceiving, a gay couple — with one exception. Comic Iliza Shlesinger stands out as an uptight single woman determined to take in an athletic teen boy with “Division 1 potential.”

Not surprisingly, most perspective foster/adoptive parents have a preference for an infant, or at least a small child. However, Pete, who makes a living flipping dilapidated house, is up for a challenge, and he and Ellie find that in Lizzy (Isabela Moner), the teen daughter of an incarcerated addict mother. Moner does an excellent job of finding that balance of being scrappy and vulnerable here as this young woman who is big sister to two adorable younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Pete and Ellie take in all three children, and their patience is put to the test, to say the least. Surprisingly, it is the oldest who gives them the most trouble. Even in the darkest of situations humor is found, especially after Lizzy receives an explicit photo from the skeevy school janitor (Nicholas Logan).

Being a PG-13 film, “Instant Family” can only go so far in depicting the harsh realities that children in the system and their foster families have to deal with. That’s not to say these issues are glossed over either, as it is made clear here that the path to becoming a happy and functional family is not a linear one. This story being inspired by Anders’ own experiences as a foster father, it feels very authentic and self-aware. At one point Pete even jokes about being seen as a “white savior” for fostering Hispanic children, a notion that Karen and Sharon quickly shut down. As the end credits roll, Moner gets to show off her impressive vocals talents as information about becoming a foster parents scrolls across the screen. Besides the obvious message about there being more than one way to create a family, there is another clear takeaway here; one doesn’t have to be saint to become a foster parent. Pete and Ellie squash all these preconceived notions. Although one obviously needs a strong moral compass to step into such a role, determination and compassion are most important.

Instant Family” opens Nov. 16 in theaters nationwide.