I recently saw the new Hollywood holiday, feel-good movie, Instant Family, about Pete and Ellie, played by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, who take in three children through a foster to adopt program. This movie received early criticism from the adoption community due to Walhberg’s role as a fictional father to children of color but his real life hate crimes towards people of color [read more: here], but I tried not to let this casting error color the way I viewed the plot and dialogue of the movie. With an atrocious and highly inappropriate first half of the film, Instant Family did admittedly surprise me by the end with some redeeming qualities.
The film starts with a conversation between sisters. One woman is undergoing in vitro fertilization to have children, while Ellie had always thought that she wouldn’t have children. The talk of children, however, planted a seed in her head, and so that night she and her husband, Pete, began to discuss the concept of parenting. When Ellie begins looking at a foster/adoption website, Pete immediately says, “I don’t want to see those little faces. Don’t break my heart.” But Ellie’s heart is obviously effected. The scene depicts a crying Ellie, while she asks her husband, “What if there’s a little kid who ends up on our doorstep?” The wording of this immediately took me back to my elementary school days when a fellow classmate asked my mom if she found me on her doorstep. The absurdity and ignorance of this statement is somewhat tolerable from a child, but not from adults considering adoption.
Pete acts uninterested and even goes to the extent of making jokes about adopting a five-year-old, but later becomes moved by the website’s images of foster youth. The couple then go to a foster parent training, where nearly every type of wrong statement was made. There are two dysfunctional social workers, Sharon and Karen, who lead the training and follow a group of parents through the fostering process.
Almost everything depicted about the initial training session is a disaster. When one eager prospective adoptive parent asks where all the kids were, Karen replies, “Let me check in back and see what we have in stock.” This remark commodifies the foster youth as if they were products available for sale and is totally inappropriate coming from a social worker. The theme of commodification continues in the group session as the future foster parents reveal their motivation for adoption. One woman describes, “I would like a gifted, athletically inclined child under the age of nine who I can channel their athletic potential — preferably African American.” The woman epitomizes adoption commodification and the desire to custom order a baby or child, fulfilling her own desires rather than a child’s need for a stable family. While strange looks are given around the room and someone comments that is literally the plot of The Blind Side (another problematic adoption film), no one directly confronts her on her misguided intentions.
Another couple in the room connote religious motivations, saying that “the Lord has blessed us.” While many adoptive parents are deeply religious, this is a classic trope in adoption media. Adoptive parents should adopt to provide a family to a child, not to earn favors from God. Perhaps even more concerning than the religious statement made by the prospective parents was the follow-up remark made by the social worker. After expressing some concern in the fostering process, Karen responds, “The big guy won’t give you more than you can handle.” This is yet another inappropriate comment because there were no indications that the agency was a private religious one. Further, this is just a bad message to send prospective adoptive parents, because fostering/adopting children who have experienced trauma is a complicated and, at times difficult, lifelong process of learning. The fact is that some people can be extremely nice individuals, but shouldn’t necessarily be adoptive parents. Reinforcing the idea that “He will not let you be tempted more than you can bear” (1 Corinthians 10:13), ignores legitimate concerns and pushes people who may not be ready to commit to a child.
When it is Pete and Ellie’s turn to introduce themselves, Pete stands up and says, “I’m not really sure about this. I mean we adopted our dog. Maybe you would have better luck if you called them rescue kids instead of foster kids. There used to be a stigma about adopting a dog from the pound.” Equating animal adoption to child adoption is another dangerous road that diminishes the severity of traumas and experiences for the adoptee and minimizes the commitment made by adoptive parents. Pete continues, “they find a kid in disrepair and just slap a new coat of paint on top,” which is an inaccurate analysis of how the deep wounds of abandonment and neglect operate.
Perhaps the only redeeming aspect of the initial training is that the social workers did provide valuable information on sibling groups in foster care, but the commodifying nature of the social workers persisted in the next scene. Pete and Ellie go to a park as a part of a meet and greet event with the foster youth. The social worker instructs them to “write down the names of any kid you might be interested in. Yeah, it can feel like shopping for a kid.”
Pete and Ellie struggle to connect with some of the younger children at the park, when finally Pete notices a group of teenagers, sitting off to the side. He tells his wife, “Everyone’s avoiding them like they’re dipped in shit.” After this remark, a surly teen girl steps forward, informing him that the teens can hear him discussing them.
This is ultimately the youth that Pete and Ellie express interest in. The social worker says, “she’s a non-issue,” because her mother, who has been incarcerated on and off for drug charges, hasn’t initiated contact in two years. While there may be less of a chance of the adoption falling through, there are still issues for the children whose parents are not in contact with them. To describe a child as a “non-issue” is a grossly simplified statement.
In a subsequent meeting, Pete and Ellie learn that Lizzie, the teen girl, comes with two younger siblings. Pete brings up the worry about part-taking in the concept of White Saviorism, but the social worker, instead of addressing the point, brushes over it immediately and neglects to validate any legitimacy in the concern.
Pete and Ellie then go to visit Lizzie and her two siblings, Juan and Lita, at their current foster home. The camera pans out to show a run down, dirty house with dangerous machinery lying around the backyard. Pete and Ellie make insensitive, inbred jokes about the foster parents who are apathetic about the children and about their living condition. The entire scene is insulting to foster parents and depicts a situation that should have never gotten approved in the first place.
When the initial visit with the children didn’t produce the “cosmic connection” Ellie thought would magically occur when they first met the kids, Ellie finds herself reconsidering her decision to look into foster care. When she expresses these hesitations to her family at a distressing Thanksgiving meal, one family member replies, “We’re so thankful that you are going to experience the love of your own children rather than rolling the dice on random kids of crack addicts and criminals.” As if that line wasn’t horrible enough, a sibling says, “our baby has to be our blood,” and another remarks, “we were worried about the safety of our real kids.” The theme of commodification continues as the foster children we referred to as “damaged goods.” The idea that blood solely makes a family is antiquated and is made even worse with qualifiers like the word “real.” Biological, foster, or adoptive children are all real children – none of these are Pinocchio.
In a rage about the comments made by her family, Ellie stands up and, with more confidence than ever before, proclaims that they will indeed be fostering Lizzie, Juan, and Lita. While her frustration to her family’s disturbing commentary is a normal reaction, adopting children of color in order to spite one’s racist family is not a good reason to adopt. Ellie and Pete cite another poor reason for adoption when in the small foster parent support group, Pete says, “We were kind of in a rut and needed a challenge – you know, change up the monotony a bit.” Boredom is not a legitimate reason to adopt.
Lizzie, Juan, and Lita eventually come to live with Pete and Ellie. When the children initially speak to each other, Pete and Ellie lean into each other and suggest, “Maybe we should have learned Spanish.” This belated realization shows the ineffectiveness in the pre-adoption training received.
Problematic scenes with both sides of the family are shown during introductions to the children. Ellie’s mother bends down, and in a loud, monotone voice speaks slowly in English, as if the Latinx kids can’t understand English. Another member of her family mutters, “I can’t get over it. They look just like normal kids.” While Ellie’s family is unwelcoming and resistant, on the opposite side of the spectrum, Pete’s mother is wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the foster-grandchildren. Despite Pete telling her to not touch the children right away, Pete’s mother goes in for a long bear-hug. Pete’s mother may have been well-meaning, but she should have listened to her son in this situation. Foster children have often been moved from home to home and may have suffered physical/sexual abuses unknown to extended family. Immediate touch by strangers may be unwanted and even triggering to children in these cases, and their desires around touch should have been prioritized.
After the initial honeymoon phase with the children, Pete and Ellie struggle especially with the teenager, Lizzie. Her choice in pursuing a romantic relationship with an adult, surly attitude, power struggle in raising Juan and Lita, and constant desire for reunification with her biological mother all challenge Pete and Ellie. In the group support session, Pete and Ellie bring up the issue of almost co-parenting with Lizzie and the dissonance that creates for the younger ones. The social workers appropriately explain that Lizzie played the role of parent to her younger siblings when their mother disappeared for days or was in drug-induced states and that she wouldn’t easily relinquish that role until she trusted Pete and Ellie. The repeated check-ins with this support group is one thing the movie does right. Many programs do not require regular ongoing support groups with a consistent set of people after placement. This, however, is a positive step forward, leaving parents with a place to turn, ask questions, and seek help rather than feeling isolated in challenges.
After the children had been with Pete and Ellie for a while, on a particularly trying night Pete and Ellie have a troubling conversation in the comfort of their bedroom. Ellie says that she wants to “get these little assholes out of [their] house.”
“I hate them!,” Pete replies.
Ellie continues, “You know what? They’re not adopted. We could just put them back.” This comment also eerily sounds objectifying of the children, as if they could be placed on a store shelf with no ramifications from this experience.
“They’re so ungrateful!”
“Everyone thinks we’re saints, and I have to admit I love that part,” replies Ellie. It is troubling that one of Ellie’s primary motivating factors was to prove her and her husband’s wherewithal and competency to her family. Of course the fostering process would be even more difficult if intrinsic motivation didn’t guide the decision.
They finally conclude, “We’re stuck. We have to accept that we made a terrible mistake, and our life is going to suck now.”
As an adoptee, it was particularly troubling for me to hear Pete and Ellie say, “I hate them!,” when referring to their foster children. Of course I understand that children are not always fun, giggling, happy beings and that children with early traumas have additional challenges. Their comments were not sentiments like, “This is harder than I expected,” or “I’m really exhausted right now. I really took for granted how simple our life was before them,” or even “I know this feeling will pass, but right now I’m so irked I feel like giving up. Maybe we need some help.” Their statements, instead, prioritized their feelings of hate or that their “life is going to suck” over understanding their children’s need for a safe and affectionate home in spite of difficult behaviors.
As time progresses forward for the family, Lizzie repeatedly indicates that she wants to see her mother. Ellie and Pete eventually take all three kids to see their mother in a supervised visitation. As they approach the biological mother in the park, Ellie comments, “She’s not what I expected at all. She looks normal. I feel bad — like we’re breaking up a family.” Ellie continues, “Look at the way Lizzie is looking at her. She’s still her mom.” This was one of the movie’s few insightful lines where the main characters show the ability be reflective and empathic.
After the visit with their mother, who has been sober for several months now and has her own apartment, Ellie and Pete learn that she wants custody of the children again. Pete and Ellie question her ability to care for the children, but understand the goal of foster care is to reunify children with their parents.
Ellie, Pete, Lizzie, Juan, Lita, the biological mother, and social workers all go to court for a custody hearing. Everything looks promising until their biological mother says that she doesn’t think that she will be able to raise the children. Lizzie is absolutely devastated, and Pete and Ellie are in shock, too. It is later revealed that Lizzie helped her mother fill out the paperwork, and the mother felt pressured and rushed into the process by the strong encouragement from her daughter. Unbeknownst to Pete and Ellie, Lizzie also wrote a letter to the judge telling him that the couple were incompetent and assaulted a boy at her school among other instances at the house.
Childless for the first time in months, Pete and Ellie go home to a quiet, neat house. They hear news that Ellie’s sister decided to join a foster-to -adopt program because “it is a hell of a lot cheaper than in vitro fertilization,” which is also not an adequate reason to adopt.
As Ellie feels about ready to give up on Lizzie, Juan, and Lita, Pete convinces her to make a surprise visit with him. The two show up unexpected at the house of speakers from the initial foster parent training. A woman in her 30’s had spoken about her experience in foster care as a success story to the group and motivated them all to continue. Pete and Ellie figure that if anyone could get them back in the spirit of fostering, it would be this couple who so easily raised a healthy, intelligent, poised daughter from the foster care system.
Aside from the boundary crossing issue of waltzing into a stranger’s house and demanding advice, this scene is one of the best in the film. The couple tell Pete and Ellie, “Right now you’re feeling scared and frustrated, but that’s how your kids feel everyday.” This couple is able to show Pete and Ellie the empathy they have lacked the entire film. The woman reminds them, “Things that matter are hard.” And they conclude by saying, “Right now, you’re all they have. So it’s your job to keep them safe whether they want you to or not.”
Noticing that their daughter is nowhere to be seen, Pete asks she is home so that they can talk to her, too. Her parents reveal that the daughter is in rehab yet again for drug addiction. Pete is obviously astounded that the person who seemed to be the ultimate success story for foster care is in rehab. And when he asks how this could be, the parents respond in support of their daughter and all that she has been through as a baby who was born addicted. The conversation between foster parents flips the definition of “success” on the head and also shows the need for long term post adoption support services. Moreover, the parents’ love and pride for their daughter come across so strongly, despite these lifelong challenges. This scene really highlights that early childhood traumas and issues related to adoption do not suddenly stop being relevant once someone reaches the age of eighteen.
Reenergized about parenting, the social workers bring Lizzie, Juan, and Lita back to Ellie and Pete. Lizzie, still emotional about the perceived rejection from her biological mother, runs away to a neighbor’s backyard. Her tough, bitter exterior finally breaks down when she can feel that Ellie does indeed love her. When Ellie is able to calm Lizzie down, she says, “I know this isn’t what you want, but I said no. You’re stuck with us.” The wording of this seems really dismissive of Lizzie’s feelings and denies her, as a teenager, agency in her life. Perhaps more supportive wording for Lizzie would have been something along the lines of, I know this isn’t your first choice, and I’m so sorry that your mom isn’t in that place right now. I will never take her place, but I hope you’ll reconsider living with us. Pete and I love you and want to support you. This scene is tied up nicely and resolved easily, and the social workers’ inappropriate behavior is continued as comic relief for this emotional scene. The neighbor, portrayed as a creepy, over-involved woman, is an unnecessary character that adds only fodder for the social workers to respond.
While Pete and Ellie didn’t feel “a cosmic connection” to the children at the beginning of the movie, Ellie tells them at the end, “we’ve got a cosmic connection.” Regular readers of my blog know my stance on destiny or divinity in terms of adoption placements and connections. Promoting the idea that the connection is “cosmic” suggests to the kids that their mother was “cosmically” bound to end up unable to take care of them. Furthermore, it creates a false expectation that the relationship between foster parent and child will come easily. The film is called Instant Family, but ironically the two hour long movie shows how long it took to come together as a family.
The film concludes neatly with the assault by Pete and Ellie being dismissed/overlooked and the official adoption of all three children completed. The final scene shows Pete speaking fluently to Lizzie in Spanish and talking about the future. It was refreshing that they didn’t necessarily assume that Lizzie would want to go to college and that they would support her regardless. The end of the movie surprised me in its emotional depth during selected scenes. While it’s hard to critique films that are based on true events, the first half of the entire movie could have been skipped to draw more attention to the few semi-redeeming qualities during the latter half. Despite the significant improvements toward the end of the film, I cannot in earnest recommend this movie to viewers. Those who do choose to watch it must keep a critical eye.