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‘Instant Family’ Shines A Spotlight On Everyday Foster Care Heroes


For writer-director Sean Anders, the call came at eight o’clock in the morning. The night before, Anders had sweated out an e-mail offering a leading role to actor Mark Wahlberg. Rather than a slapstick comedy heavy on pratfalls and innuendo, the director of “Daddy’s Home” and its sequel had been working on a script as moving as it was funny.

Now he really wanted Wahlberg to portray the skeptical, bighearted, and hilariously overwhelmed adoptive dad at the heart of his new story. “You never know what Mark is going to do,” said Anders at an advance screening of the film in Washington, D.C. “The guy gets 15 offers a day, it’s crazy. When I see it’s him calling, I jump out of the car all excited.”

Wahlberg famously gets up at 2:30 a.m. daily for a three-hour workout regimen. “Sean, you know how early I get up, right?” asked Wahlberg, according to the director. “I’ve been sitting around for hours waiting for an appropriate time to call you and say, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this movie.’”

As the star shared his passion for the cause, Anders couldn’t believe the A-lister was all in for his foster care project. Suddenly, the film didn’t have to be a small indie movie.

Deep Subject, Broad Audience

This past weekend, Paramount Pictures rolled out Anders’s $48 million comedy “Instant Family” to 3,258 screens nationwide, starring Wahlberg (“Lone Survivor”), Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”), Isabela Moner (“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”), comedian Tom Segura, and Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”).

While its first weekend was underwhelming, coming in at number four, experts say its box office take is likely to rise with strong word-of-mouth reviews, which have been consistently positive from critics and, more importantly to Anders, from foster families.

“People usually make movies on foster care as really heavy dramas,” he said. “Some of them are fantastic. But most of them send people away with feelings of fear and trepidation towards kids in care. We didn’t shy away from some of the trauma and tragedy of it. But our focus was on the wonderful families that can come out of this.”

It’s rare that a Hollywood comedy brings on subject matter consultants to get details right— and then still manages to be funny. The involvement of partners such as the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and Adopt US Kids has remained steady. Their official website, given screen time before credits roll, directs families to practical foster and adoption resources.

Congresswoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, backs the effort. “We have a crisis,” Bass said at the D.C. screening. “Here in the richest country in the history of the world, we are leaving our own children lingering in a system for so long without a loving family. I love that this film is personal for you, Sean, that you took in these three kids.”

The director sidestepped any applause. “Everybody’s story is completely different,” said Anders. “In our case, we were naïve going into it. It was really chaotic. Mostly it had to do with us not knowing what we were doing.”

“There was a lot of screaming and crying— then the kids were doing things too.”

When Parents Decide to Foster

Sean Anders has written a dozen (mostly) raunchy, rowdy comedy flicks with his writing partner John Morris, including “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “Horrible Bosses 2.” In the midst of brainstorming gags, Anders told his friend about he and his wife’s leap into foster parenting.  

“Everything I was telling him about my experience— the social workers, the classes, the whole thing— was completely foreign to him,” said Anders. “We realized it was an interesting setting for a movie. Those few films [on foster care] never really get into the dirt of how it all works.”

To do it right, he sought help from Allison Maxon with the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. The child welfare expert, who consulted on “Instant Family” throughout production, started by convening foster and adoptive families for the co-writers to interview.  

“We are tackling these stereotypes people have about foster care and adoption,” said Maxon. “In the beginning, with the Thanksgiving scene, you see how a real extended family questions going this route. It’s funny but it’s based on actual conversations.” In the scene, the matriarch admits to feeling uneasy about her potential new grandkids, while a sibling says cousins plan to keep their distances.

Wahlberg’s character carries the film with his everyman charm, sort of a coarser version of Chip Gaines from “Fixer Upper.” (The film is rated PG-13 almost entirely for explicit language.) One can hear a lot of the film dad in Anders, who designed the comedy as a light, cathartic way to address the unknowns of foster care.

“People have the inclination to adopt, but fear stands in their way,” said Anders. “You’re just afraid of who these kids are, where they’re coming from and what they’re going to bring into your home. You’ve never babysat for more than two days— then all of a sudden you’ve got kids in your house.

“Even though it’s a process, it feels like an instant family.”

Social Workers Smile Through Struggles

The director’s wife, Beth Anders, also spoke at the D.C. screening, praising the people on the front lines. “No matter who you are, it’s so important to be part of something that’s bigger than you,” she said. “Social workers are right at the top in terms of sacrificing for others.

In the film, two social workers play off each other with perfect comedic timing, Octavia Spencer as the straight-talking good cop and comedienne Tig Notaro as her by-the-book deadpan foil. Their amusing banter lightens what could be perfunctory exposition.

Social workers at the screening praised the film’s balance of edgy humor and emotional drama. One African American adoption advocate in the audience had stories of his own to add. “For every bad day I have, I have 50 good days,” he said. “I see some of the most incredible things: a mother who gets sober, a child who gets adopted. It’s tremendous.”

Laughs ensued when Spencer and Notaro convened diverse parents to discuss their struggles, including Wahlberg and his on-screen wife Rose Byrne. “The support group scenes are very real,” said Maxon. “Families get the most support from each other. There’s nothing like peers in the trenches living it every day to help normalize your experience.”

Maxon recalled the two co-writers attending many support group sessions to make the film authentic, in addition to Anders’s real-life experiences. His admiration for foster and adoption groups doesn’t keep him from honest criticism, including one he hopes they take to heart.

“People who work in the system sometimes lead with facts, figures and statistics,” said Anders. “They don’t want to sell anybody a sugar-coated bill of goods, so they tend to over-warn people about what could be coming their way. It’s important to be honest with people. But there is a certain amount of story that would acclimate people to these ideas better.”

His wife Beth finds it a bit revealing to have the nation invited into their family life. “But I love the honesty of the movie,” she said. “He spent so much time with social workers and families across the country. What meant the most to him was hearing from that community that he got it right.”

Foster Kids Overcome the Odds 

For all its humor, at the heart of “Instant Family” are the real stories of foster kids who have gone through trauma. Cut off from their families of origin for myriad reasons, more than 400,000 U.S. children are shuffled from home to home. Often they carry all their belongings in a trash bag, as depicted in the film. The foster care population has risen in recent years.

“Those of us who didn’t grow up in foster care start at the start line,” Maxon told me at the screening. “Our kids begin two miles behind the start line. With the obstacles they have to overcome, it’s like they climb Mount Everest. They are the bravest kids on the planet.

Such challenges are multiplied by time spent in the system. Foster teens are often ignored and sidelined by prospective parents. “Instant Family” addresses that head-on thanks in part to Maraide Green, a former foster youth who started on the project at age 18. It’s also reflected in Anders’s own experience, having adopted three siblings who are now ages 8, 9 and 13.

Rep. Bass finds this aspect one of the film’s most important. “One of the things that happens to kids in the foster care system is they get separated,” she said. “Sometimes it takes years to find each other, if they ever do. The trauma of being separated from your family is enough, then not being able to connect with siblings compounds that.”

Sean Anders has seen foster teens respond to the film in particular, including one boy at a recent Toronto screening. “I will never forget this kid,” said the director. “He was 13 but he was really tall. He said, ‘I’ve never had a movie make me cry before.’ Then he just burst into tears and started to tell me all about his life and experience.”

Foster care and adoption groups nationwide are excited for how this positive portrayal of their work could help move trends in a better direction. “This movie is our opportunity to shift the narrative in a very powerful, real way,” said Maxon. “When Mark Wahlberg goes on Jimmy Fallon and Ellen to discuss this story, and a major studio like Paramount takes this on, the nation is suddenly talking about the full story of foster care and adoption.”

For Anders, the three-year process of producing “Instant Family”— and now seeing a movement spring up around the film— has created something of a crisis for his career.

“I’ve been making screwball comedies for most of my life, and I love ‘em,” he said. “But this is a whole other thing. My agent keeps saying: ‘Hey, we have this project, or how about this one?’I tell him that this film has been so fulfilling, I don’t know what the hell to do next.”

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language, and some drug references.