There is a conversation to be had about representation in film. How it should evolve, how portrayals should differ from years past, how diversity both on-screen and behind the camera needs to be addressed; and, this isn’t all to be brought up at the expense of a happy-sad film like “Instant Family.” But, there is an underlying subtext, a palpable tension, in particular moments of the narrative in which we’re watching a white, middle-class, suburbia couple (Pete: Mark Wahlberg; Ellie: Rose Byrne) adopt a trio of abused, damaged, and desperate for love Latino children (Lizzy: Isabela Moner; Juan: Gustavo Quiroz; Lita: Julianna Gamiz).
How miraculous is it that the picture paints itself with a flavor of white-privilege? Can’t you envision the Social Justice Warriors of the far-left, swooping down from the self-loathing towers of superstitious snobbery and demonizing a film such as this one? Shouting: “Racism” or “Another white savior trope!” Doesn’t that seem possible? More importantly, doesn’t that seem likely to happen?
This isn’t all to say that I’ve switched teams and am now an evangelical, “make America great again” kind of voter, but there is a fabric being stitched together in-between the predictable emotional climaxes and see-through endings that are merely meant to pluck tears out of you, instead of causing them to pour. I resonate with that code of conduct. That flag-bearer mentality. All of that is birthed out of white-guilt, that unassurance of what the right thing to feel is; and, we haven’t gotten to have such introspective and complicated discussions just yet. Right now it's about changing the status quo, which is all good with me, but eventually, that conversation needs to be had, and the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be.
Nevertheless, this isn’t all to sit back and praise “Instant Family” as a genius for such forward-thinking. It’s a happy accident; any drunk buffoon can see that. But, that’s not to say there is nothing here, quite the opposite. What “Instant Family” manifests is an abundance of topical discussions involving symbolism, behind the scenes operatives, the purpose of representation, the teetering lines between authentic representation and the shouting down of a different color of skin. Before we get there though, allow me to say that “Instant Family” is that happy-go-lucky kind of film.
It’s sappy, meant to pry any remnants of emotion left inside of the cold heart of any cynic and any critic. It a lot like last year’s “Wonder,” a film about a disabled child learning to embrace himself. Matching that textural expression of surface-level emotion, how adoption is a complicated process. How the complications that arise are not only challenging for the kids but the foster parents as well. The examining of this duality, of this shared struggle, is a bit like a one-liner: smooth and soft, and a bit pudgy. It rolls off the tongue and contains a sharp edge; remaining firm and stoic with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The crafting of such a film, aesthetically, is quite easy on the eyes. It’s simple, elementary, and knows when and where to insert a sprinkle of update or change from its contemporaries. The performances are all satisfactory, few of them step out of line or attempt to cross an unagreed upon threshold. It’s all smooth sailing. Which is sort of the point isn’t it?
These are the fluff pieces of the cinema, never reaching for a brass ring, or daring to wake up the person next to you. It’s in the name of good fun, and, because of that, the grade above represents a passing score. Not because the film is grand or breaking new ground, but because it plays the formula to perfection. The moments of relief, of that smiling cry, are there and you can’t help but grin at the joy of a parent’s hard work paying off with the words “Goodnight ‘Mommy’!” That ounce of appreciation, that moment of sheer glee, is what this movie works for, and I’m not afraid to say that I fell for it. I bought into the trick, fell for the bluff, got lost in the sun, or whatever other expressions you want to use to say: “I bought in.”
If a film can do that, well, it’s hard to say it's a bad movie at that point huh? However, like the rest of these passable products of the multiplex, there is a monumental gap in the excavation of these characters. It’s a term I’ve used quite a bit over the last bit of time, and for a good reason. One, I think it's a pretty word. Two, it’s true; a story involving characters should be treated as an archeological dig, reaching back into the past and figuring out what made it work before and why; and then taking that artifact of genius and issuing it into your collection of storytelling tools. There is never a moment in this film where the kids are not portrayed as damaged goods in need of repairing. The superficial emotion and the predictability of our story are expected traits. It’s a contractually-obligated token of the experience, one that is only rewarding to us depressed suckers who go to see these movies every holiday season.
The gears, the cogs behind that emotion though, that’s something that can be evolved. That’s a criticism worth noting; especially when that line between white-skinned heroism and honest-to-god humanity is teetering on the edge of a cliff. There needed to be a moment, a time, where the film provided that dose of authenticity in which these kids chose to be repaired, decided that it was time for a change. Some will argue it's the admissions of “Daddy” and the climactic finale, but that’s the product we paid for, where is the one that we didn’t?
Listen, I know that most of the audience is there for a cry-fest; just hoping to see a story that is peeling back a curtain just enough to weep a tear or two. But, there is something to be said about the divine intervention lurking within the background of a film such as this one. As I said, it’s an act of long arm coincidence, but there is an ounce of remedy, an ounce of mastery; I would even go as far to say a shred of artistry looming over this easy to digest movie. We all stumble upon perfection at one point and time, what if that’s what happened here and they were too attached to the blueprint to notice? I guess we’ll never know, isn’t that a crock of shit.