Early press screenings of Sean Anders’ “Instant Family” came with an unexpected bit of pre-show entertainment: an introduction from filmmaker Sean Anders, during which the director of such decidedly non-family-friendly features like “Sex Drive” and “That’s My Boy” explained the real-life experiences that informed his newest film. Regular moviegoers won’t see that video when they go to see “Instant Family” in theaters, but they will be treated to the kind of title card that has never previously adorned an Anders joint: “inspired by a true story.”
Nearly eight years ago, Anders and his wife Beth decided it was time to become parents, but worried that they might be starting too late, they turned to the foster system. Eventually, the pair rounded out their family with a trio of siblings. Their real-life experience frames up the film’s plotline, which follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) as they embark on a similar story. It’s the most heartwarming film Anders has made yet, though his recent output, including both “Daddy’s Home” films and “We’re the Millers” (which he partially co-wrote alongside his frequent collaborator John Morris) speak to a soft spot for family-centric stories, even in the midst of broad comedy.
“If my career had any kind of purpose to it all, it was gonna be this movie,” Anders said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “And to use what I learned about comedy through all these other movies, to apply it to something that’s this important to me, to use the comedy in this movie to make an entertaining comedy that gets people to think about something that they don’t think about very often, that’s very important to me.”
That’s not to say that “Instant Family” isn’t without its laughs, and the film includes plenty of gags that wouldn’t be out of place in another Anders film, from Wahlberg accidentally decking his foster son with a basketball during their first meeting to an amusing and high-energy sequence during which Pete and Ellie go after a guy who has been sniffing around their teen foster daughter, Lizzy (Isabela Moner).
“I think a lot of times, comedy, and sometimes broad comedy, physical comedy, really gets written off as something that people perceive as easy, when it’s anything but easy,” he said. “It’s so hard. Even a big, silly, physical setpiece, there’s so much work and effort goes into it, and so much timing, and so much collaboration. It’s not the thing that people hand out awards for, or give you very much critical credit for, but it is something that I love. … But this movie was a kind of a whole new area of something that is more dramatic and more grounded.”
“Instant Family” is a rarity at the multiplex: a real dramedy with a ton of heart and lots of laughs that also packs an important message. As Pete and Ellie wade into the foster care system, the feature dramatizes some of the weirder stuff that the Anders family dealt with during their own journey. A few of the plot points that seem most bonkers — like a first act “adoption fair” in which prospective parents stroll around a park and attempt to bond with foster kids that feels oddly like an pet adoption fair — were drawn from early experiences, and while they earn some laughs, Anders and co-writer Morris were intent on serving up reality to their audience.
“It’s inspired by my own story, and I’ve got a million stories of my own, but it also incorporates the stories of a lot of other adoptive families that we met with along the way,” Anders said. “The hardest part was boiling that down, because every adoption story is completely different. … We never wanted this movie to be a public service announcement, or to feel like medicine, or to feel like some kind of propaganda for foster care adoption. We wanted to make an entertaining, funny comedy, with a lot of heart and with a lot of honesty. But the best way to do that was to really have people understand how this system works, with the social workers, with the classes, where the kids come from, what the parents are dealing with.”
While Anders admitted that he and Morris had to leave out “hundreds of things … that were really hard to let go of,” it was essential that they find the balance between informational and entertaining. Other members of the cast had their own connection to the world of fostering, too, like co-star Joselin Reyes, who appears as Pete and Ellie’s foster kids’ birth mother in a heartbreaking scene in the film’s final act.
“She was only the second person to come in to read, and we were all in tears by the time she was done reading the scenes,” Anders said. “She was so real, and grounded, and heartbreaking, and then when she left, we turned over her headshot, and were delighted to read that she has her master’s in social work. … She had a lot of compassion for the character, and a lot of understanding, and that made a huge difference.”
A former foster kid named Maraide Green offered up notes on the script, and became the film’s unofficial “Lizzy consultant” before joining the film as a production assistant. Green helped provide guidance to Lizzy’s portion of the story — while the Anders family didn’t adopt a teenager like Lizzy, much of the film’s emotion hinges on the character’s spunky perspective — and even contributed to a pivotal speech given early on by a character who speaks at Pete and Ellie’s parenting classes and helps inspire them to take on a teenager.
Initially scheduled for a February 2019 release, Paramount moved “Instant Family” into a prime pre-Thanksgiving slot after test screening audiences responded positively to the film. It will now face off against franchise heavy-hitter “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and Oscar contenders like “Widows” and “Green Book.” The studio is betting on its appeal to all kinds of families, which is exactly what Anders was always hoping to see.
“I was so terrified when we did our first screening of the movie, because we were working so hard on this balance between the comedy and the drama, and I didn’t want the movie to be this preachy drama, but I certainly didn’t want it to be some screwball comedy either,” Anders said. “[When] we did our first test screening, the thing was just off the charts. It was one of the greatest days of my life, because it wasn’t an audience filled with adoptive parents, it was just a regular audience of people that just came out to see a movie.”
Paramount Pictures will release “Instant Family” in theaters on Friday, November 16.