Instant Family: an honest fostering depiction or gimmick?

Author: TACT

Tags: film & tv fridays, film and tv fridays, filmandtvfridays, instant family

In 2018, the fostering world was offered a comedic take on the journey to becoming new foster parents. Both aptly and ironically named Instant Family, filmmaker Sean Anders based the film on his own experiences fostering and adopting his three children. Amongst worries that a comedy film could undermine or diminish the delicate subject matter of foster care, does Anders’ depiction carry authenticity and truth, or simply reduce the complexities to a few gimmicks and laughs? 

On the whole, the movie makes a really strong effort to touch upon a range of experiences many foster carers truly go through; both before approval and after their children and young people move in. The story is told from the perspective of Pete and Ellie, a middle-aged married couple who decide to pursue fostering after joking about adopting a five-year-old to make up for lost time (a joke Anders truly made to his wife in real life!). After facing judgement from their ignorant extended family, they persevere with the certification process and start attending classes with other prospective foster parents. Although some dialogue raises eyebrows, such as Pete ignorantly comparing fostered children and young people to dogs in the pound or houses that need fixing up, Pete and Ellie’s journey from having generally clueless and naïve expectations to realising and, more importantly, understanding the reality of foster parenting is what makes this film feel so authentic. Lots of foster carers experience a similar reality check during the training and assessment process, but are not deterred, instead becoming determined to continually learn and grow into resilient carers.  

The script touches on many issues and experiences that ring true; Pete’s worry that they’re not special enough people to be foster parents, concerns about the white saviour complex when taking in three Hispanic children, slight tensions between religious applicants and LGBTQ+ applicants, and even a self-aware joke scorning the well-meaning but problematic film The Blind Side (click here to read our review of that). Social worker duo Karen and Sharon never romanticise the process, consistently talking about the different challenges and trauma that children and young people in foster care may have faced, and we learn about the high numbers of children in care, how it is harder to find carers willing to welcome teenagers and siblings, how there are ‘not nearly enough [foster] parents’ and that ‘the primary goal of the system is family preservation’. Although the film successfully portrays this education that prospective applicants receive, it does fail to depict the rigorous and thorough assessment process, in which background information is evaluated closely. This can include previous relationships, jobs, life experiences, childhood, support networks and emotional intelligence/stability, and is vital in forming a trusted picture of whether applicants are safe and suitable candidates to foster vulnerable children and young people. Instead, it being a blockbuster comedy, the film makes it seem as if all you must do is attend a few classes, meaning multiple problematic and caricatured characters who would never be approved in real life are certified alongside Pete and Ellie. We also see an uncaring couple who are ‘doing it for the paycheck’, only endorsing a harmful stereotype of foster parents which, in reality, is extremely rare. 

Another moment which raises eyebrows is the ‘Adoption Fair’, where Pete and Ellie are told to go and socialise and write down any names of children or young people they are interested in. Unfortunately, these fairs are a real thing counties in the USA do to speed up the matching process, and there is credit in the fact social worker Karen does admit ‘It’s messed up, I know’, scornfully comparing it to ‘shopping for kids’. The point of the matching process is to compare the skills and offerings of the carers against the needs of the child or young person in order to create pairings that are most likely to be stable and have longevity. This includes physical things like location and space, but also more nuanced analysis of previous experiences and traumas. Simply meeting a child at a local fair and ‘hitting it off’ with them is a shallow and illogical matching process far less likely to create well-founded foster families. The fair may have been Ander’s experience, but the film does not depict any nuance in terms of how matching is carried out. 

When the three siblings, Lizzy, Juan and Lita move in, the film accurately depicts what is known in the foster care community as the ‘honeymoon period’ many first-time carers experience. This is when children and young people are still adjusting to their surroundings, and so act on their best behaviour. Pete and Ellie are mocked in a foster carer support group, when they claim; ‘these kids, I think they’re just really good, we got lucky!’. Just a week or two later, challenges begin arising with all three siblings. The film does a genuinely good job of truly reflecting the ways in which children and young people in care can behave due to past experiences. Despite receiving lots of Christmas presents, Juan and Lita only want to play with the cardboard boxes they came in, Lita talks to her dolls mimicking the way adults have previously talked to her, Juan apologises constantly, and Lizzy is very reluctant to allow Pete and Ellie to parent her younger siblings. Pete and Ellie eventually reach a moment where they want to give up, and question why they got into fostering in the first place, especially after Lizzy accuses Ellie of being ‘just another white lady who wants to adopt little charity orphans to make you feel good about yourself!’. The film puts effort into explaining why Lizzy can be a challenge, with Grandma Sandy telling Pete and Ellie that ‘she doesn’t hate you, she just thinks you don’t love her’. After expressing frustration about not feeling appreciated enough, Pete and Ellie are starkly humbled by other foster parents declaring to them that ‘things that matter are hard’ and that their job is ‘to keep them safe, whether they want you to or not’. These moments are tough to watch but ring true to the emotional journey foster parents can go through; Pete and Ellie’s exasperations allow them to lose sight of what they’re doing until they are reminded that the siblings ‘feel frustrated, scared and lost every day of their lives’. 

After this, Pete and Ellie throw themselves back into their roles and are devastated when Lizzy, Juan and Lita’s birth mother Carla comes back into the picture after following her reunification steps. This is a very real reality that many foster parents must repeatedly navigate but is also where the film falls a little short. The portrayal of Carla is generally unsympathetic, with social worker Karen unprofessionally claiming she is ‘probably in an orange jumpsuit selling smokes in the yard’. Sharon does make the point that she is ‘a product of the system [who] never learned to properly care for herself’ – an attempt to reference the wider issue – but the film does not follow through sufficiently. It is really important that foster parents nurture a positive impression of birth family in the home so that their foster children can navigate those complex feelings in a healthy and safe space, but the film frames Carla in such a way that when Ellie confesses ‘I keep wishing that her mom would go back to prison’, we as an audience find ourselves ashamedly wishing for that too. In reality, lots of birth parents do reunify with their children after receiving the proper professional help and support, but Instant Family almost makes it seem as if Lizzy’s love for her mother is naïve and unfounded. Whilst Pete is correct in saying ‘we didn’t take her kids, the courts did’, it places all the blame on Carla instead of offering a more nuanced and sympathetic view that properly acknowledges the other factors at play within an unjust and underfunded social system. 



Verdict: Ultimately, Instant Family certainly feels like an authentic portrayal of both the joys and challenges that come along with being foster parents. As social worker Sharon says, ‘it’s important to have a sense of humour about this kind of thing’, and the comedy still manages to tell an uplifting story without romanticising or erasing the hardships involved. 

Note: It must be observed that fostering depictions may be accurate for the US whilst still being inaccurate in terms of the UK system.