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Instant Family

Inspired by the experiences of writer-director Sean Anders, Instant Family is a surprisingly sweet and touching comedy drama about foster parenting, which delivers its core messages of patience and self-sacrifice with sincerity and tear-filled eyes. The opening hour of Anders's picture, co-written by John Morris, mines a steady supply of chuckles from the misadventures of a happily married couple who welcome three troubled tykes into their ordered home. Blood flows when a 10-year-old boy accidentally takes a basketball and then a baseball to his cherubic face during some athletically-focused father-son bonding. Nerves fray as the only bathroom - perfectly adequate for synchronised spouses - struggles to accommodate three additional bladders and the beauty regime of a teenage girl. Anders's light touch and occasional splashes of syrupy sentiment give way to hard knocks and painful home truths in a poignant second half that promises to exhaust every handkerchief you have tucked in a pocket or sleeve. Instant Family earns its heartfelt emotional release by focusing intently on the inner turmoil of children who have been discarded and sometimes starved of affection and need someone to provide them with stability and a safe harbour from the darkness of the past. Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) renovate tired properties. The couple have never seriously discussed raising children until an argument between Ellie and her sister Kim (Allyn Rachel) prompts a serious debate about foster parenting. Pete and Ellie naively undergo a training course run by sassy social workers Sharon (Tig Notaro) and Karen (Octavia Spencer), who repeatedly hammer home the physical and emotional toll that lies ahead. "These kids will push buttons you never knew you had," they warn. Once Pete and Ellie have qualified, they offer a home to troubled 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her siblings: 10-year-old Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and six-year-old Lita (Julianna Gamiz). After a blissful honeymoon period, the Wagners clash with Lizzy, who is convinced that her drug addict mother will clean up her act and reassert her custody rights. "We've just got to accept that we made a terrible mistake and our lives are gonna suck now," observes Pete with a rueful smile. Relatives rally around the exhausted couple, including Pete's straight-talking mother (Margo Martindale), who makes child-rearing seem so effortless. Instant Family charms by stealth. Byrne and Wahlberg possess a winning combination of cluelessness and caring, and the latter wrings genuine tears from his scenes with gifted young co-stars. Notaro and Spencer deliver pithy one-liners with expert timing, then share the film's emotional heavy-lifting as self-doubt takes a heavy toll on the Wagners' marriage. A family isn't defined by the blood flowing through its veins but by words and deeds, and in this respect, Anders's picture proudly wears its heart on its sleeve.