The True Story Behind The Movie Instant Family Will Make You Happy Cry

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are happily married and happily childless. But at the start of Instant Family, out November 16, the couple moves into a house with more bedrooms than they could ever need, and Ellie gets an impulsive idea: What if they fill the house with children? From there, Ellie and Pete begin to look into fostering children. That's how Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz), come into Ellie and Pete's lives.
Like the NBC show This Is Us, Instant Family depicts the highs and lows of the fostering process. But there's one big difference: Instant Family is drawn from director Sean Anders' actual experiences fostering and later adopting three children with his wife, Beth.
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Seven years ago, when Anders and his wife were in their early 40s, they began to consider having children. Anders had joked that since he and his wife were on the older side, they should have older children, too. “Why don’t we just adopt a 5-year-old and it will be like we got started five years ago?” he recalled in an essay for Time.
The only problem? Anders and his wife were completely unaware of the actual mechanics of the fostering process. “When my wife and I got involved in foster care to adopt...we were really surprised that we didn’t know anything about it — from movies or from TV. The actual process was a complete mystery,” Anders told EW.
Instant Family seeks to remedy that pop culture deficit. Much of the process is depicted in the movie, including foster parent training classes — which, in the movie are led by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer — and events like adoption picnics. In an interview with EW, Anders went into detail about how "uncomfortable" adoption picnics really are. “You just don’t know how to engage in this situation … We’re not supposed to go up to kids who we don’t know and talk to them!" he laughed in the interview.
In 2012, the couple took three siblings — aged 6, 3, and one-and-half — into their home. Anders has been candid about the strangeness of those early days with his children. “Everything leads back to this one thing: That you have these new people in your house and you don’t love them, and they don’t love you,” Anders told the Boston Herald. “You barely know them, but you’re supposed to carry on like you’re a family.”
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In his essay for Time, Anders describes a turning point in their relationship, which had come after a few rough months and many moments in which he and Beth thought perhaps they had made a mistake. "One morning I woke up early and I realized, 'Oh my God, I kind of miss them right now, and I’m excited for them to come in. What the hell is happening?'” In 2013, Anders and his wife legally adopted their three children.
Obviously, Ellie and Pete's journey correlates to Anders and Beth's. Many of movie's sequences are directly inspired by those early months, like a memorable temper tantrum his then 3-year-old threw. Even more are inspired by foster and adoptive parents they'd met along the way. There's a slight difference, though: Ellie and Pete adopt a teenager and her two younger siblings, not three young children as Anders and Beth had. But even that fact is drawn on real life. Early on in the process, Anders and his wife had matched with a teenage girl and her two siblings who had been in the system for four years. Ultimately, the teenage girl decided to turn down placement in the Anders' home in case their birth mother came back for them.
The character Lizzy was born of that experience. Anders thought it important to include a teenage character in Instant Family, as older children are less likely to become adopted. Within 18 months of "aging out" of the system at age 18, 40-50% of teens are likely to become homeless.
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Embedded within the movie's conventional family comedy structure is a message born of Anders' experiences. Anders hopes his film can change people's perception of fostering children. “I think when people hear the words ‘foster care’ it brings to mind a lot of negativity and fear, and what I found in my travels through the system, over and over again, is that you meet the kids, and you go ‘Oh, they’re just kids. They’re just kids, and they need families and they need love, and they have love to give, just like any other kids," Anders told the Harvard Crimson.
So far, the movie has screened for audiences of families with adoptive and foster children — including Anders' own family, of course. Before seeing the movie, Anders said his kids didn't understand its point. "To them, it was almost kind of boring, like, who would want to see a movie about our boring family, y’know?" he said to Patheos. The audience's positive reaction made them think otherwise. "The kids are just so knocked out that people seem to be really excited by this and interested in this and getting a lot of laughs from it," Anders said.
See for yourself when the movie hits theaters on November 16.
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