German sneak previews can be fun. You pay a fixed amount of money for a ticket and get to see a movie ahead of its official theatrical release. The actual gag of that concept is that you obviously never know which movie will play, and while it’s possible to narrow down the possibilities based on upcoming releases, there’ll still be a broad range of films that have a chance to be shown. In conclusion: It’s as likely for a studio comedy to screen as a Cannes competitor — quality, genre and degree of audience compatibility are completely variable factors. The only right way to play this game is to leave your expectations under the doormat. Additionally it doesn’t hurt to bring someone with you. Since the surprise and the challenge to keep an open mind is injected into the premise, it doesn’t even need to be someone who is much of a cinephile — either way, the event is even more fun in the presence of good company.
It happened to be that just a few days before Christmas, I found myself in one of these sneak previews. The German release of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters was imminent, so a sweet tingle of hopeful delusions swelled right before the screening and was restlessly shattered as it became clear, that the movie shown was going to be Instant Family, a Mark Wahlberg/Rose Byrne-led comedy about an American middle-class couple adopting three children after finding their lives in a dry spell. On first glance, it sounds like an appalling, class-insensitive expression of a white-savior narrative, one that is still so widely accepted that it would hardly come as a shock if the film turned out to be exactly that. The actual shock came gradually with the realization that the film doesn’t only possess truly effective comedy in realms of absurdity I had never expected, but also manages to pull off a surprisingly sensitive dig at its narrative, which never goes the route of the melodramatic and offensive hell I feared.
I have no acquaintance with director Sean Anders’ previous films, but from the outside, his filmography seems like — and I want to pronounce that I am merely speculating, since I’m not in the position to judge — a mess. From both Daddy’s Home to Horrible Bosses 2, there is a heavy percentage of critically-panned studio comedies to be found here. And while his newest film Instant Family does fall into the same category on the surface, there is a sense of crucial subversion and self-conciousness that isn’t only rare, but is also executed to a degree of perfection.
The story follows house brokers Pete and Ellie, white, middle class Americans with their lives in order, a house of their own that could’ve been 3D-printed out of the account of an Instagram influencer, and their sudden, at first rather weightless and clueless decision, to adopt a child in need. It is an endless well for comedy and recognizes that, as cliché as it sounds, is exactly what makes this film so crudely successful. It’s a device that is introduced early on by foster care representative Karen — played by an Octavia Spencer who definitely has her moments — and it continues to be the red thread for everything that comes after. The film never covers up Pete and Ellie’s intentions and shows their interiors, partly selfish and partly on a journey of deeper understanding and empathy in close-up. In the face of an entirely spotless cast, Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg are almost uber-perfect choice. Byrne especially shines in surely one of her best and funniest performances to date, and seemingly gives the entire comedic core of the film a wholly new dynamic.
As the film paints the initial situation as an absurd one, weight is gained when it comes to the situation of actually adopting kids. In much more complexity than expected — little painful misses forgiven —Instant Family gets fairly serious about the topic of letting someone in need into your life. It manages to ground itself and while maintaining its comedic elements, it sends a message out: that the adoption of kids is not an easy task and one that comes with certain concessions, such as the recognition of one’s privilege and the development of empathy and understanding for the less-privileged. And finally that it remains a task that is urgently important and not to be pushed away because of a broader discussion of intention around the topic of privileged people adopting kids. Sending this message out, while being good entertainment, is a grand virtue in itself and an important aspect of studio filmmaking that often is not up to a certain standard of quality or accessibility. This film manages to keep both in balance and will give its target audience something to think about. It’s something that made this sneak preview with its intentional lack of expectations so much more thrilling, because if we see more studio films like this, we’re on the right track.