‘Instant Family’ Is a White Savior Narrative That Looks at the White Savior Narrative

Does a more thoughtful adoption story separate itself from the culture in which it exists?
Instant Family

There are many pitfalls where a movie like Instant Family can stumble. It’s a particularly dangerous landscape for non-white audiences, where movies like Avatar and The Blind Side have long laid the groundwork for an eye-rolling expectation of white savior films to unsettling results. To hold faith in a Hollywood depiction of transracial adoption can be a tall order, but that’s the faith Instant Family asks of its audience. Given its theme and genre, there are two standards by which a film like this one can ultimately be measured: 1) Is it fucked up? and 2) is it funny? And while the opinion of whether it excels at the first question is best left to each individual viewer, Instant Family does operate in a level of self-awareness by discussing the white savior narrative and looking some of its challenges in the eye.

The film distinguishes itself from past egregious white savior stories by interweaving their pitfalls into its story and acknowledging them directly. When it comes to Avatar and The Blind Side specifically, they are called out by name, like a young Eminem attacking Vanilla Ice to get ahead of the comparison and distinguish himself as something different. Instant Family might inherently fall into the pitfalls of previous white savior films simply by existing — after all, it’s impossible to separate the movie from the Hollywood and American cultures that allow it to be greenlit in the first place. If there are any contributions it offers though, it’s that Instant Family is a movie with a meaningful message of the real need for local adoption, and calls some major pitfalls by their names. The result is that Instant Family is an unexpectedly genuine family comedy. As for the second question, and perhaps, more importantly, depending on the type of movie-goer, Instant Family meets its mandate by being endearingly funny.

Instant Family

It may be useful to describe its comedy by what it’s not. Instant Family avoids slapstick; few of its laughs come from an injury or physical comedy of ill-prepared parents facing the dangers of raising children. Neither is it a gross-out comedy; few of its laughs come from puberty, dirty diapers, or other low-hanging fruit of parents shocked by their new children’s bodies. Instead, Instant Family is a fish-out-of-water comedy where the parents are the fish in the comfort of their own homes that emotionally changed on the deepest level. Where the first act focuses on the decision to adopt, the second and third acts are about Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) trying to win the love of their three foster children.

Love is won easily on the part of the two youngest children, most adaptable due to their younger ages. The teenager though, Lizzy (Isabela Moner), is their leader and fill-in maternal figure, as well as the most resistant to her foster parents. The movie finds its best footing when the kids’ birth mother is introduced to the film, bringing a dark reality to what had largely been jokes about the cultural insecurities and ignorance of white people. You can expect this to be the most conflicting part of the movie as viewers are forced to question who it is they’re rooting for, and why. To root for family reunification is to root against the protagonists the audience is being trained to support. For this reviewer it wasn’t successful — when I reached the crossroads I found myself on the hopeful side of the birth mother, nearly regardless of the circumstance — though the plot leads to a predictable place from there regardless.

The unsung heroes of Instant Family are its supporting cast members, of which there are many. The cast is so sprawling at times that it seems unlikely the script can carry the bloat of their weight. It does though, as stars such as character actress Margo Martindale (you have to say the whole thing) add comedic contributions throughout the movie, even if only fleetingly. When a certain white person attempts her cultural flex by pronouncing a regular name with a Spanish accent, it’s nearly impossible not to belly laugh. The movie does temporarily go off the rails in its third act with a ham-fisted side plot that allows the parents to show protection of their young teenage daughter, and for a moment you lose your place in the movie and its actual conflict. Even those moments have their moments, though.

Instant Family

Based on the true story of its screenwriter Sean Anders and his adoptive family, Instant Family is ultimately a warm comedy with a clear and genuine message of the challenges, rewards, and ultimate need for adoption. Sprinkled into the film are facts and statistics about the real-world needs of children across the country and how much stress this places on our system, courtesy of Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer who play off each other as our guides to certain realities of fostering and adoption. Much of their comedy is to nod at the problems that exist around adoption, but weighed against an underlined reality: a thing is fucked up, but juxtaposed against the need for adoption, everyone does the best they can. Instant Family is ultimately a call to action for those who might consider taking the leap themselves. And for World Adoption Day, the same month of Instant Family‘s premiere, there were adoption-focused videos like this one:

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  • Jordan Calhoun is a writer in New York City. His forthcoming debut book "Piccolo Is Black" is a celebration of the common adaptations we made while non-diverse pop culture helped us form identities. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JordanMCalhoun

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