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New Movie, Instant Family, Shines Realistic Spotlight on Foster Care

November 28, 2018     By Ken Ostdiek, Former Boys Town Foster Parent

Family, Foster Care, Saving Children, Today's Family

The new movie, Instant Family, is based on the real-life experiences of writer/director Sean Anders and his wife, Beth, as they fostered and adopted three siblings. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as Pete and Ellie, Instant Family follows the movie couple's decision to become foster parents after they wonder if they've waited too long to become parents. Soon, they are matched with a teenage girl (Lizzy) they meet at a foster care picnic, along with her younger brother and sister. Initially, everything seems to go very smoothly. But soon Pete and Ellie learn about the very real challenges of fostering, taking the audience on an emotional ride as the couple learns how difficult – and how rewarding – being a foster parent can be.

One of the movie's strengths I really appreciated was how each of the three siblings represented some of the common characteristics of children who are placed in foster care. Specifically, they portrayed how the abuse and neglect they have suffered can affect their ability to form healthy relationships and trust other adults, and how it impacts their emotional and mental health. The movie did not try to gloss over the difficulties and stress that come with being a foster parent and working with children who can be very challenging. It showed the "honeymoon" phase of foster care, where everything seems easy and comfortable, as well as the unexpected meltdowns and the children's rejection of attempts by Pete and Ellie to connect with them. Many people will relate to the couple's nervous excitement when the kids first move in, their struggles to work together and even their second guessing of their commitment to be foster parents. The story presents a complete picture of the emotional rollercoaster fostering can be, and, as a former foster parent, it was easy to identify with what this family was going through. It was a welcome surprise to see the good, the bad and the ugly that many foster parents experience.   

Another of the movie's strong points was how it represented the foster parents' extraordinary experience of working with a teenage foster child. Placing teens in foster care has always presented a special challenge, and the common perception of a teenage foster child often is that of an unruly, brooding and ungrateful "punk" who just wants to be left alone. But that perception does not have to be reinforced, and this story helps. The character of Lizzy represents many real-life examples of teens who have been in multiple placements and have been disappointed time after time by their own parents and possibly by their foster parents as well. Lizzy brings to life the many very real and complicated behaviors teens display when they're caught between the fear of being rejected and the fear of being loved.

Another aspect of the movie that worked well were the scenes in which foster parents who had gone through training together regularly met in a foster parent support group to share their experiences. While this may not have been the most realistic portrayal of how foster care consultation and support works (at least not in Nebraska), it was an effective way to present what other foster families were going through. Also, including Pete's mother and Ellie's family in the storyline provided an opportunity to present some of the stereotypical attitudes friends and family members have about fostering as they struggle to understand the foster parents' decision to welcome children into their home and how they interact with them.

Even with all of these positives, the movie did have a few shortcomings. Because it was based on a real-life experience that resulted in the adoption of the foster children, the movie didn't devote much attention to the majority of children in foster care who are eventually reunited with their biological family. (However, I felt the story did accurately portray the emotions Pete and Ellie felt during the children's visits with their mother.) Reunification can be a scary time for everyone involved. Boys Town provides complete support as foster families move through the adoption process, but the majority of the children in Boys Town foster homes have a goal of reunification. If the movie could have included a storyline that followed a foster family through reunification, it would have been a great way to show how, most of the time, foster care works to heal broken families, not just create new ones.

A few other things to be prepared for when seeing the movie:

There is a lot of rough language, something to keep in mind if you're considering taking your children. This actually lends credibility to the story, as it is not unusual for foster children to curse at or call their foster parents crude names. The movie also plays up a few stereotypes of people involved in or affected by foster care. This is done mostly for laughs, but some people may be put off by the way certain characters are portrayed. Finally, it is an emotional movie; some viewers may be overwhelmed by events and elements of the story that touch their hearts.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Instant Family to anyone who wants some insight into the wonderful-scary-turbulent-joyous-unpredictable yet incredibly rewarding experience that is the life of a foster parent. 

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