Competition | Instant Family

I was recently invited to a preview screening of Instant Family – a film about fostering and adoption. Billed as ‘a feel-good movie for everyone’, I was intrigued. Pete and I have often muttered that our experience as adoptive parents is worthy of a sitcom, but to see an adoptive family portrayed close-up on the big screen as light entertainment? Would it ring true? Would I cringe? Would I just cry all the way through? Only one way to find out.

© 2018 Paramount Pictures

The story

The film opens as we see Pete and Ellie explore a house they’ve bought to renovate. We discover they are ‘house flippers’ – they buy, renovate, and resell houses. (Yes, they draw the parallel of seeing the potential in children just as they do houses.) An offhand comment turns into looking at an adoption agency website and reading the equivalent of the Children Who Wait profiles where I found our daughters, so that really resonated with me. This is their eye-opening moment. Once Pete and Ellie have seen the need for adopters, they take the plunge, and we next see them at an information session.

It’s refreshing that Pete and Ellie are not coming to adoption after infertility, which is often the only way in which the media like to portray adopters. We’ve certainly had that assumption made about us plenty of times. That base is covered by other characters, but I was pleased that the film conveyed that there were other reasons to get involved in adoption and fostering.

Preparations

The prep classes are portrayed as basically hilarious. Everyone says why they are adopting and the type of child they’re hoping for. We meet the range of stereotypical categories of adopters: the Christians who believe God has called them to adopt, the couple who are heartbroken about not being able to conceive, the gay couple who joke that they haven’t been able to conceive either, and the single woman who is portrayed as crazy for having a very specific idea of the child she would like to parent. It‘s played for laughs, and the assertion that love, structure, and discipline would eventually make everything OK is put forward. Thankfully this is challenged by events later in the film (no spoilers!) so we see that great parenting doesn’t necessarily make all the problems vanish. I was grateful that they showed this quite forcefully.

© 2018 Paramount Pictures

The process

We don’t see any of the home study. No intrusive questions about past relationships or Pete and Ellie’s bank balance. No ‘these are the issues and medical conditions we can’t handle’ questionnaire. I know the American system is different but I’m sure it’s not quite that easy, is it? There’s no long wait to be matched, no panel, everything is incredibly quick. Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of the American system, but I suspect there‘s some artistic licence there.

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Introductions

Intros are also handled very differently from our family’s experience. Pete and Ellie go to a ‘foster fair’ (similar to the UK’s adoption fun days), at which they meet the lippy but likeable 15-year-old Lizzie. When they ask the social workers about her, they’re told she comes with two younger siblings, Juan and Lita. Almost immediately Pete and Ellie turn up at the foster home to meet the children, and suddenly the children move in. Just like that. 

Settling in

© 2018 Paramount Pictures

After a brief honeymoon period, things start to unravel a bit. They discover Lizzie is engaging in some, erm, risky behaviours involving her mobile phone. They also have to handle direct contact with the children’s birth mum without any obvious support from the social workers. Juan manages to shoot himself in the foot with a nail gun. The extended family are well-meaning but all kinds of inappropriate. I felt all this was a good, if brief summary of the kinds of issues that foster and adoptive families tend to face.

Support

Pete, Ellie, and the rest of the prospective adopters form their prep class continue to meet regularly at a foster carers’ support group. The group is facilitated by the same two social workers throughout – Karen and Sharon, who are quite different in their personalities and approach but together get the job done. Everyone exchanges stories about their children’s behaviours – fights at school, death threats to the parents – and the single adopter’s wait for the ideal child she envisions. Again, I’m glad the issues are mentioned, but all the problems are laughed off a bit more than I felt completely comfortable with. The couple receiving death threats from their 5-year-old was a little too close to home for me.

© 2018 Paramount Pictures

The same two social workers are the only professionals we see involved with the family. They have one visit to the family home together and are generally supportive and encouraging. Suffice it to say that this didn’t ring entirely true for me given our experience. Where were all the form-filling, the emailing, the begging for mental health help for the children, the meetings with school to discuss extra support, the antidepressants for the parents

The end

And finally, without giving anything away about the ending, there’s a challenge from the birth mum which casts doubt about whether the adoption order will be granted. That uncertainty is hard for everyone, and I would have liked to see that explored a bit more.

Is the resolution realistic? Yes and no. Without giving away any spoilers, the Pete/Ellie/Lizzie dynamic is explored more than the relationships with the other children. Lizzie’s protective impulses towards her siblings is covered to some extent, but there is a lot of skipping over the true horror of their trauma. I had to keep reminding myself that the film is supposed to be entertainment, not a documentary, and should be judged as such.

#InstantFamily: a good, if brief summary of the kinds of issues that foster and adoptive families tend to face. Read the full review: http://bit.ly/HMInstantFamily Click To Tweet

Is it funny? In places. Everyone (except Jacob the creepy janitor) is very likeable. But even when they confront him about exchanging explicit pictures with Lizzie, the whole thing is played for laughs. This is paedophilia (he’s 22, she’s 15) and I was really unsure about the film’s handling of that aspect. Lots of the rest of the audience I was with laughed out loud repeatedly, though.

How did I feel watching it in the context of my own family life? Mixed. Yes, I cried more than I laughed, often at things that went unsaid. There was no child-to-parent violence. The children didn’t break anything or fight each other. There was only one instance of ‘You’re not my real mum’. I did catch myself wondering how their house was so immaculate, how Pete and Ellie managed to look exactly the same at the end of the film as they did pre-children, and how there was not a whole lot more helpless sobbing or hiding in the kitchen eating Nutella from the jar. Maybe our own family is at the extreme end of the scale. Maybe Ellie was enjoying all manner of marvellous self-care activities that we just didn’t see on screen, making her better able to field all the crazy. I don’t know. 

The verdict

Would I recommend the film to other adoptive parents? To others who want to understand adoptive family life? Yes, I would. It’s a good starting place. Seasoned foster carers and adopters may raise eyebrows at some of the issues that seem to be resolved a little too easily, but we should perhaps allow for some artistic licence in a film that seeks to be ‘feel-good’ light entertainment.

So to answer the questions I started with, yes, some aspects rang true. Yes, some of it made me cringe a bit. And yes, it certainly made me cry. But ultimately it’s good to have a somewhat realistic but also hopeful portrayal of fostering and adoption in cinemas, encouraging people to think about the issue and the possibility of getting involved themselves.

Here’s the trailer.

Competition 

To win an Instant Family teddy and a £20 cinema voucher, enter the competition below. A winner will be chosen on 12 February 2019.

Instant Family is rated 12A, and is released in the UK on 14 February. 

Instant Family competition

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