I’ve never really been a big fan of adoption or foster care-related movies. Mostly because they often miss the mark in portraying the honest and raw emotions that come from this journey (and you know how much we love honesty..:-) ). There have been a few exceptions to this. Who can forget the moment that Leigh Anne made Sean stop the car in The Blind Side when they saw Big Mike walking alone in the cold and then invited him home with them? Tears every time I watch that scene! And the moment when Annie’s supposed birth parents show up to Mr. Stack’s apartment to pick her up is heart-wrenching in the 2014 Annie remake.
But there’s a lack of real on the big screen with many traditional adoption and foster-themed movies. Not only do they miss the mark on the process, but often paint a much rosier picture of foster care and adoption than really exists. And I’m not saying that in relation to the children we care for. I’m saying this in relation to the journey, the process, the ups and downs of a broken system, and more. There’s frustration, deep loss and heartbreak almost throughout. There’s trying to understand past trauma, and there’s certainly grief that our kiddos experience.
You just can’t capture the realness of this journey in a 2-hour film. Or can you?
To be quite honest here, when I started Instant Family last week, I went in with my guard up. I didn’t want to see another film that provided a sorta-kinda accurate perspective on foster care and adoption. I didn’t want to find myself rolling my eyes, or shaking my head and saying “Nope, that’s not right,” under my breath. I’ve had enough. No one has really captured the true accuracy to-date. Much like I felt several years ago with some of the Bible-story-themed films and television series. Can we just….not….anymore?
But 10 minutes into Instant Family I was in tears. I was also laughing…a lot. And more than that….I was hooked! I had this feeling in my gut, even early on: this film was going to do it. They were going to capture that raw honesty that has really never before been captured in modern cinematography. I have to say…I LOVE this movie. I really do. I do have some strong cautions (which I’ll share a little later) but for now…here are my thoughts on Instant Family by the grade…
- Humor (A). From the get-go there are many hilarious moments. Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who play the foster agency workers Karen and Sharon, are hilarious and brilliantly portrayed. Any parent who has been through grueling foster parent training in recent years will get a kick out of their characters. And the Thanksgiving dinner scene at Ellie’s parent’s house will make you cheer, especially if you have extended family who have said horribly offensive or hurtful things in the past about your decision to foster or adopt (*Warning: Strong language though!).
- Raw Emotion (A+). I told many people this past weekend, at the conference I was speaking at, that I have never seen a film capture the raw emotions you experience in foster care like Instant Family does. In the very beginning of the film, Karen and Sharon allow an adoptee, previously in foster care, share her story with Pete and Ellie’s orientation group. I dare you to not sob uncontrollably during this scene! In the end of the film, when Lizzie, Juan and Lita’s birth mom relapses, it is gut-wrenching to watch Lizzy’s reaction. I’ll say it again…I have not seen a movie about foster care and adoption that captures raw emotion like Instant Family does.
- Dramatizing Trauma-Induced Behaviors (B+). As I watched the Christmas Day dinner scene where Lita melts down and demands potato chips, and even the scenes that follow, I could tell instantly that this film was created by someone who gets it….who has been there…who has walked through these hard and frustrating moments. And the reaction from Ellie and Pete in the Christmas Day scene would be accurate of parents who did not yet understand behaviors brought on by trauma. Those of us who have been on this journey for some time know that Holidays (to name one of many) can be massive triggers for our kiddos. This was very accurately portrayed and well done throughout the film.
- Themes Of Loss, Survival, and Grief (A). Lizzy, the oldest child in Pete and Ellie’s care, deals with deep loss throughout the film. She longs for reunification with her birth mom. And her behaviors are aligned with a child of her age who would be operating from survival mode. For a 2-hour film to capture this accurately is quite a feat. But the themes of loss, grief, and survival are palpable throughout. You find yourself feeling the deep emotions that the children (as well as the parents) feel.
- Birth parent relationship (B+). The only reason this gets a B+ and not an A is that it was fairly brief in the film. That makes sense. You just can’t illustrate in full length every aspect of this journey, especially the complexity of birth parent-to-child relationships. But the rocky relationship between Lizzy, Juan, and Lita and their mom was accurate. And again, the raw emotion was on-point.
- Suitability For Children (C). Below I will share my thoughts in more depth, but this is one area I would take strong caution before seeing. Number one, because I believe this film is more for parents and will bring them enlightenment and encouragement on the journey (I’ve heard from many who said it was like watching their life on the big screen), but also because I think the subject matter could be triggers for kiddos who have experienced the loss of their first family. Keep reading…
A Few Cautions Before You See The Movie…
There is strong language throughout the film (which I don’t mind, but you might if you’re taking young children to see this), as well as moderately unnecessary sexual references. I say moderately because this is also a portrayal of real life, so the lingo used would be accurate (and honestly, not uncommon around our household if I’m honest here!). In terms of taking children to see this, I would not recommend taking any who are still in foster care, children not that far removed from their adoption day, or children you think could be triggered by storylines of loss, trauma, or grief. There are too many moments that could become triggers. And since we are already at the cusp of the Holiday season at the time this post is written, any opportunity you have to reduce triggers would be advised.
One scene that I did not find very humorous, nor did I think had to play out the way it did, happened toward the end of the film, where Ellie and Pete track down the school’s 22-year old janitor who had been texting lewd pictures to Lizzy. Realistically speaking parents would not walk through the halls of the high school, looking for this person, nor beat him up the way they did (of course, any of us could understand why they did so). Accurately, we would do the responsible thing and call the police and school officials. Furthermore, when Pete and Ellie are arrested for the assault of the janitor (at the same time he’s arrested for sending inappropriate sexual content), Lita and Juan, who were waiting in the care to be driven to school when Pete and Ellie charged into Lizzy’s school, are placed in temporary care while they wait to post bail. The children then return to their care. This would likely not happen in real life. You do not mess with the foster care system. In real life, Juan and Lita (and Lizzy) likely would have never returned to Pete and Ellie’s care, and their license would have been suspended or revoked. This is one storyline in the film that could have been modified drastically, and still driven home a powerful point.
That one scene being the exception, I thoroughly loved this film and would highly recommend it to foster and adoptive parents. I thought it was delivered with accuracy, honesty, and a vulnerability that will encourage and move parents.
Did you see Instant Family? What did you think? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.