Maybe we’re the only ones to have waited nearly a year and a half to watch Instant Family. (Better late than never, right?) Whether you watched this immediately after its release, or you haven’t even heard of it, consider the perspectives elaborated in a foster parent’s review of Instant Family.
Shortly after its release in late 2018, friends highly recommended Instant Family to us (along with disclaimers about the language). A year and a half later, we finally found time—without children—to watch it. (Since this film DOES contain a lot of objectionable language, we watched it through a filtering service called VidAngel—more about that later.)
Based on real-life experiences of director Sean Anders and his wife, Instant Family is about a couple who decides to pursue adoption through the foster care system. Though they have good hearts, it doesn’t take long for them to be rudely awakened to the reality of what they have gotten themselves in for. Their misconceptions about the glamour of taking in foster kids (and the ease of “renovating” them) are blown to shreds. The couple’s dedication—and motives—are tested, as they learn what it really means to love children unconditionally.
We loved it. In fact, we loved it enough to show it for a movie night at our church.
Others’ Reviews of Instant Family
As well-received as this film was, some have written cutting critiques. Rolling Stone calls Instant Family “too saccharine to elicit the desired emotional response” and complains that it “reduces the complexity, pain and joy of parenthood to a multiplex-palatable family comedy.” In my opinion, that writer missed the point. This isn’t a movie about parenting; it’s a portrayal of the realities of foster parenting. That is a very different beast than just plain parenting.
In reviewing this film, some have called it too sappy, or “schmaltzy,” treating it as merely a feel-good movie that can jerk a few tears. But those who have experienced foster care from either angle recognize its deeper message and praise its accuracy. One foster mom called the film “very accurate,” and stated “the 1st few months of any new placement are SO HARD. If anything this movie doesn’t make it look hard enough.” One former foster child wrote, “As I was a foster child this hit me square in the face. It was one of the hardest movies for me to watch. Its depiction of how the kids act is 100% accurate.” Another wrote, “I finally have a film that I can show someone when I want them to understand what it was like for me as a foster child.”
Our Perspective on Instant Family
As foster parents for the past 4 years, we LOVED how well this film portrayed the realities of the foster care experience for both parents and children. Matt and I laughed so hard, at so many parts, because we have been there. Although each child and each case is different, this movie provides a poignant peek into our lives.
In fact, we found its accurate portrayal of foster care so valuable that we were eager to share it with others. So, last month my husband facilitated the showing of Instant Family (also through VidAngel) for a movie night at our church. We wanted to raise awareness about the dire need for foster parents, spark interest in foster parenting, grow sensitivity toward the needs of foster children and their foster parents, and discuss ways to support both. This family drama/comedy was a fun way to present many sobering realities and start important conversations.
Note: The one scene that completely shocked us with its phoniness was the “adoption fair,” a meet-and-greet event where prospective adoptive parents could scope out children in need of homes. (Seriously, how crass is it to, in effect, go shopping for a kid?) While I have never seen this, apparently these “adoption fairs” do happen in parts of the country. Nevertheless, the rest of the movie was on point.
Foster Care Realities in Instant Family
I won’t be a spoiler and give away the plot. However, I do want to share the many accurate portrayals of the foster care experience found in this movie.
Realities for Foster Children
- Far too many children are waiting to be adopted in the United States.
- Many children needing foster or adoptive homes come with siblings. In our experience, you have to wait longer to be placed with a single infant than with older children and/or sibling groups, simply because fewer people are willing to take on those responsibilities.
- Foster children are not “damaged goods” who are visibly different from everyone else; they don’t necessarily fit into stereotypes.
- Foster children notoriously DO travel from one home to the next with their belongings in garbage bags—if they bring any belongings at all. Of our five placements, only one came with suitcases. Our first placement of 3 children came with all their things in garbage bags, some still on hangers. I had to sort out which clothing belonged to whom. One came straight from the hospital with only a diaper bag. Another came with a duffel bag but the rest of her belongings in garbage bags. Some organizations are working to change this. (You can also donate suitcases to local foster care agencies.)
- While some foster children react to their experiences with anger and defiance, others respond with fear, shame, guilt, and excessive, people-pleasing behavior. One of our foster children impressed us with his politeness, his “please-and-thank-you” everything. Yet his profuse apologies for simple mistakes (spilling his water, wetting his pants) required much reassurance to alleviate his fear of our anger and rejection.
- Older siblings may be used to taking the role of the parent, so they don’t know how to relax and be a kid, or else are unwilling to hand over the responsibility. After becoming certified, our first placement involved three children under the age of 3. The oldest was used to caring for her younger siblings, nimbly climbing to get things out of cupboards or pulling the gallon of milk out of the refrigerator. But even though we provided her with toys, she followed me around instead, not knowing how to play.
- Children’s loyalty is often to their parents, regardless of the facts.
- Children in foster care may feel powerless about where they are placed or if they are removed from a home they like. They are at the mercy of the system.
Realities for Foster Parents
- Many foster parents are amazing. Some are not.
- Prospective foster/adoptive parents have to take classes as part of an extensive licensure process.
- Family members may not always understand or support your choice to take in foster children. Matt and I are amazingly blessed to have both of our families embrace every child who has entered our home, loving on them the same as their own children/grandchildren/nieces and nephews.
- Husband and wife do not always respond the same to the idea of foster care/adoption, nor to interactions with the foster children in their home. Matt and I could not endure the stresses of foster care without being on the same page. Still, what stresses one of us does not always bother the other.
- Foster care agencies do often provide some sort of training and/or support group opportunities to support their foster parents. Our agency, The Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, offers monthly trainings toward our annual re-certification requirements. The workers feed us and babysit our children while we attend training. They even offer a periodic “Parents’ Night Out” where they babysit our foster children for three hours so we can have some free time. All of this is in addition to their regular workload.
- There is a particular mix of nerves and excitement that first night that children are placed in your home. We might be almost as nervous as the children. However, our fish tank has been a great help in this transition time. When a child comes in our home, often the first thing they head for is the fish tank and it instantly helps them calm down.
- Birth parents or relatives may show up out of nowhere and disrupt the adoption process. Early on in one child’s placement, we were asked if we would consider adopting her. Nine months later, some out-of-state relatives appeared seeking custody. We were told another sibling group would be with us for a long time. A week later we got a call stating that an aunt had shown up and passed the home study. Those children only stayed with us one month.
- Meeting the birth parents can revolutionize the foster parents’ perspectives; it may be shocking to see how “normal” they appear. After a year or more of hearing of all a birth mother’s failures to make the required changes, we finally met her face to face in court. The pain on her face and the tears in her eyes revealed her complex humanity, and her love, that I had previously been unable to see. I came away sad, not ecstatic as I expected, when she relinquished her parental rights.
- Often there is a “honeymoon period” when foster children are on their best behavior before their real selves shows through. One sibling pair, placed temporarily, was perfect for a week. They were so easy we agreed to keep them long-term. Once they were comfortable with us, stubbornness, sneakiness, and boundary-testing soon kicked in.
- What you do to help the children may or may not be appreciated.
- You may have to endure bouts of intense screaming or out-of-control behavior, at home and/or in public, which you have no idea how to handle. One 2-year-old went camping with us days after she came into our care. She woke up screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night, in the middle of a crowded campground, fighting me off with demonic intensity as I tried to calm her down. Over time, we eventually learned her triggers and better managed her meltdowns. But in that moment, I was terrified of this child AND of what the neighboring campers thought.
- Children’s anger or disdain toward you may not be personal; they may just be working through intensely confusing emotions about their situation, their memories, their losses, their sense of powerlessness, adjustment to new rules, loyalty to birth parents, etc. Our little girl would not have anything to do with Matt the first couple months. Anyone who knows Matt knows how gentle he is! While Matt felt hurt that she wouldn’t receive his love, he understood that her rejection and distrust resulted from previous exposure to an abusive man.
- You may have to deal with children’s ingrained, unhealthy habits. One sibling pair came to our home used to eating ramen noodles, fast food, snacks, and LOTS of candy. We experienced many two-year-old meltdowns before we realized we had to keep all candy completely out of sight (and earshot) in order to get him to eat anything else. It took a couple months of creative attempts to get him to even TRY a single vegetable.
- Foster children may connect with one foster parent long before the other (if at all). Interestingly, the children Matt connected with best were not so easy for me to love, and vice versa.
- Children may struggle with divided loyalty between foster parents and birth parents. We saw this with one little boy who cried for his mama and counted down the days to reunification, only to have a late-night meltdown upon realizing he would no longer see us. (Read more in Why Foster Care and Adoption Don’t Provide Perfect, Happy Endings.)
- Visits with biological parents may cause the children to display disruptive or out-of-character behavior upon their return to your home. Every week. Even the best children are affected (though not so much with infants). After visits—visits that went well—and for the rest of the day, we saw lots of moping, stubbornness, and over-protectiveness of belongings in one four-year-old, and hitting and other aggressive behavior in a generally happy two-year-old.
- Kids’ hearts are broken when their birth parents let them down.
While Instant Family is funny and sends an important message, it DOES contain plenty of objectionable language (according to a PluggedIn movie review, “Nearly a hundred vulgarities fill the script”), as well as some other potentially objectionable content.
Viewing this film the first time through VidAngel, we forgot to set the filters for one word. That word, however, provided valuable context to a scene depicting a fight over the pictures on a teen’s phone. VidAngel apparently also filters out objectionable visual content, since I never saw certain scenes mentioned in Plugged In.
If you find some content off-putting, consider these helpful resources:
- Common Sense Media offers reviews and content ratings to guide parents’ decisions about what their children watch. If you choose to watch Instant Family with older children, the “Talk to Your Kids About…” section offers worthwhile discussion questions.
- Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn offers even more in-depth descriptions about the content of movies so parents can make informed decisions about what their children (or they themselves) watch. However, the reviews go into so much detail about specific examples of language, violence, sexual, drug-related, etc. content that much of the movie’s plot is revealed.
- And again, if you want to enjoy films like Instant Family without profanity, VidAngel is a subscription service that filters the content of selections you watch from Amazon Prime or Netflix, alongside some original content.
Response to Instant Family
Though some reviewers complained about various aspects of Instant Family, I found it to be both a humorous and worthwhile look at the realities of foster care.
What are your thoughts? If you are a foster parent or experienced foster care in your youth, what parts resonated with you? If you have no experience in the foster system, what questions does this film raise?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!