INSTANT FAMILY – A TALE OF THE TRUE SUPER HEROES

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family is the charming, inspirational and humorous story of a DINK (double income no kids) couple who decide to foster three children. The film manages to be smart, brutally honest, funny and even whimsical all at the same time.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Must see! BUT only for older teens and up for language and story content.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!!

Instant Family COULD have been called Foster Parenting for Dummies. This is no one's idealized version of a blended family. This is not The Brady Bunch, Three Men and a Baby, Despiccable Me or even……… The Blind Side (and you'll see why that's funny when you see the movie). But the movie is honest and very funny, miraculously achieving that delicate balance between comedy and drama which many movies attempt but at which few succeed. The innate parity between laughter and tears, which exists in the human condition but is rarely found in movie scripts, comes naturally to this script because the story was inspired by writer/director Sean Anders and his wife's real life experiences of adopting. All of the characters, from the kids to the support group members to the social workers, are based on the real people Anders met through the process – normally flawed humans with the usual awkward family dynamics trying to do their best under difficult circumstances..

Instant Family soft pedals nothing as it follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg – Mile 22, Deep Water Horizon and Lone Survivor), and Ellie (Rose Byrne – Moira from the X-Men reboot and Bea from Peter Rabbit, and who, though from Australia, does a spotless American accent) from their naive, romantic visions of fostering a child, through the often hilarious mandatory support group meetings, the spotty support of their doubtful relatives, through the decision making and then to the realities of trying to support, protect, guide and raise three at-risk and traumatised children of different ages.

Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny.

The movie occasionally wanders gently into slapstick and slight caricature but only in a way one might, with the humor and affection gleaned from the wisdom of retrospection, remember an experience that did not seem funny at the time but ends up being one of your favorite memories. Instant Family reminds me a lot of last year's equally brilliant Wonder, about a family coping with a severely handicapped child. There are no bad guys, only the challenge, tackled by adults and children alike, to interact with the people who love you as best you can.

And if you ever wondered, as the PSA querries, that you had to be perfect to foster a child, the characters in Instant Family will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly.

The support group scenes are especially funny, populated, as they are, by every possible combination of would be foster parents, from: single wanna-be super mom, to idealistic fundamentalist Christians, to an infertile interracial couple, to a gay couple, and to our protagonists – an upwardly mobile self employed couple, who initially think of these children the way they do the houses they renovate for a living. All come with a unique set of priorities and preconceived, often conflicting, sometimes counter-intuitive notions. Some are even portrayed as ridiculous or annoying. But, fundamentally, ALL of them have one thing in common: A core desire to provide a loving stable home for children who have none, and who are often at risk of abuse, addiction and even death at the hands of their biological parents and the environment to which they are subjected.

These foster parents, for all of their differences, flaws, quirks, and even errors in judgment, are the living life rafts on the treacherous and stormy seas of our broken culture, desperately trying to rescue survivors who sometimes don't even want to be saved. I love movies about: The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ant Man, Batman, Justice League and Agents of SHIELD. But these disparate, sometimes awkward, occasionally clueless foster parents are the true super heroes.

The acting is terrific, never succumbing to the easy temptation to sink into saccharine or false empathy, but neither does it avoid showing the warts of the torturous foster process.

Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent and never shy away from any of the very strong emotions of the moment, but don't dwell on them either. And there is a constant balance of the solemn with the naturally evolving moments of humor that always arise from even the grimmest of circumstances. For example, the social workers, Sharon and Karen, played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and Zootopia) are very funny as odd couple co-workers. Notaro is the prim, proper, white, reserved, rule follower while Spencer is the outspoken, blunt, pragmatic, black counterpart. But they both have a realistic view of their jobs. When Pete asks Sharon and Karen about the foster children's father the only answer he gets is uncontrolled laughter. This humorously speaks serious volumes without belaboring the tragic point. In another scene, after learning of a significant hitch in their plans, Pete and Ellie come home to discover Ellie's mother, Jan, being decorated with permanent ink sharpies. There was no malice involved. Children and Jan alike had mistaken them for washables. Jan, performed by Julie Hagerty, whose unforgettable stint in Airplane made her synonymnous with ditzy characters, solemnly offers good and sage advice but, of necessity, while indelibly and distractingly face painted.

The music is a cheerful and delightful sprinkling of songs like Wings' "Let 'em In," George Harrison's "What is Life," and Jefferson Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop us Now". The perky upbeats also help soften the more somber moments. You can get the individual songs streaming on Amazon here.

The children are very natural. Isabela Moner, singer and actress, is Lizzy, the teenager who is simultaneously grateful for the safe haven Pete and Ellie provide for herself and her siblings and understandably resentful of these same people as interlopers to her "real," incarcerated, drug-addicted mother. Moner has a truly beautiful voice and sings the credit song, "I'll Stay," at the end of the movie. Gustavo Quiroz is adorable as Lizzy's clutzy, well meaning and inept younger brother, Juan. And Julianna Gamiz is the youngest and precocious sister, Lita.

The two younger kids act with the normal and very believable open ingenuousness, quick impulsive affection, manipulative behavior, and selfish temper tantrum demands of normal kids. But the writing skillfully runs a thread of abnormality underneath these kids' otherwise normal veneer. For example, Lita happily plays with Ellie when they first meet until Lita begins play-acting with her doll, calling her doll racial epithets and interacting with the doll  in ways she is obviously imitating from her previous foster parents. It's nothing sinister but casually cruel. And it gives the audience a taste of what every precarious day can be like for these kids whose parents have abysmally let them down  and are in a system which can sometimes fail them. But again the serious tone is undercut by the humorous way the failed foster couple insist she must have heard it on TV.

A lovely cameo is of Joan Cusack as an elderly, awkward, but concerned neighbor who helps to deflate another scene which could have degenerated into mawkishness but for her delightfully eccentric presence.

The filming style itself is very straightforward, almost like professionally made home movies, as we see quite intimate moments of Ellie and Pete with each other, with their families, and with the foster kids, and the support group sessions.

While there is no sexuality shown on screen, there are sexual topics which come up necessarily and inevitably with the raising of a 15 year old girl from a bleakly broken background who has severe daddy issues. In addition, under stress, there is some humorously interjected but understandable profanity that crops up sprinkled throughout the movie. This, with the serious topic of abandoned and at-risk children, make this movie suitable only for older teens and up. However for that demographic for which is appropriate it is a must-see movie.

 

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER – OFFENSIVE ON SOOOO MANY LEVELS

 

SHORT TAKE:

An attempt to "update" The Little Mermaid which is buried in an agenda filled script.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Don't bother.

LONG TAKE:

Rhett Butler, in Gone With the Wind, while talking to Scarlett O’Hara after the death lists are handed out says: “I'm angry. Waste always makes me angry. And that's what all this is, sheer waste.”

And that about sums up my opinion on The Shape of Water. This movie is offensive on so many levels. There was a great idea in there but the film makers were so bent on foisting an agenda upon the audence that they lost track of it.

The premise is clever. It’s the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid turned on its head. When a “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and a mute cleaning lady named Elisa,  (Sally Hawkins from Paddington Bear), fall in love, she and her friends endeavor to set him free from the facility in which he is being held.

Sounds a bit like Splash but with the genders reversed. But that’s where the similarities end. This is a humorless, angry diatribe against the human race in general and men in particular.

To start with, the only males in the movie who have any redeeming features are Elisa’s homosexual neighbor Giles, (Richard Jenkins – Jack Reacher and White House Down) and Dimitri, (Michael Stuhlbarg – A Simple Man and Dr. Strange), a Russian spy who decides to defy his own country to help Elisa – two men who are outcasts of the society in which they live.

All the other men are evil characters. Elisa’s only other friend is her co-worker, Zelda, (Octavia Spencer). Zelda’s husband, Brewster, (Martin Roach) is a lazy, unappreciative burden, does not protect his wife and betrays her at a crucial moment. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon – 12 Strong), the scientist who captured the creature from South America is sadistic, domestically abusive, carelessly bigoted and a sexual harrasser who rots – literally – before our very eyes. Even the counterboy, not so much as given a name except for the “Pie Guy,” at the local shop is portrayed as gratuitously evil. A scene in which he gives a startled but gentle rebuff to Giles’ sudden, unexpected and unencouraged sexual advances is immediately linked to an overtly bigoted action towards a black couple who enter his diner – as though to imply if you are heterosexual you must be a bigot. Well, frankly, to my way of thinking this shows the screenwriters, Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor are both bigoted and racist – to men in general, to heterosexuals in particular and especially, but not exclusicvely, to those who are not minorities.

Minorities are not treated respectfully eiher. Zelda is a caricature of an uneducated black woman who indulges and allows herself to be taken for granted by a husband who will not even defend her when she is threatened.

Giles is also a caricature – an ineffectual, alcoholic unemployable elderly gay artist who yearns for young men and youth, pitiful and cowardly unless led by a strong woman’s presence.

The military is portrayed as heartlessly and unnecessarily cruel, disposing of people like used socks and planning to vivisect a one of a kind creature with abilities and physical attributes that can only be exploited if it is alive. This latter is especially stupid and demonstrates the knee-jerk distain and prejudiced hatred del Toro and Taylor must have for an organization which helps protect our country. I could have understood a plot which wanted to use the creature, to perhaps even put it at risk in order to duplicate its abilities – but to simply and randomly kill it to see what is inside is a juvenile finger in the face to any kind of authority figure and exposes del Toro's —isms which prevent him from writing a good script.

But of course the women are courageous movers and shakers. Zelda, for all her weakness with her husband, is a stalwart companion to Elisa. And Elisa marshalls help from her friends in a daring rescue of the sentient creature who she then hides and has an affair with in her bathtub at home. If this sounds ridiculous and somewhat grotesque – it is.

And if you take any kind of objective look it is hard to determine who is the more evil – Strickland or Elisa. Elisa is a woman who feels isolated – mute from birth, no family, abandoned by a river with gill-shaped scars on her throat, who has a — thing — for her bath water.

After making contact with the creature Elisa goes to Giles to DEMAND – not ask or entreat – his help. She explains that she wants the creature because SHE is lonely, because SHE needs him, and because the creature is alone LIKE her. She does not say she wants to rescue him because he is a sentient creature about to be needlessly killed; not because he is perhaps the last of his kind – both of which would have been far nobler arguments. And, BTW, the only one who does consider these two more valid points is Dimitri the Russian spy.

Her friends must put themselves at risk because SHE wants the creature – leaving aside the answer to the question of what she would do if she fell out of infatuation with him – bring him back to the lab or leave him on the side of the road like an unwanted puppy?

So she coerces Giles into helping him, either not considering or not caring that he could get shot (which he almost does) or put in federal penitentiary for what they are about to do. She then, during the course of this ill-conceived adventure, forces Zelda to help her too. And had Dimitri not popped up and risked his own life to help them the misadventure WOULD have ended up with them all dead or in jail. Never mind the feds would, realistically, have had enough evidence to be on their tail within days – finger prints, the random witness. Instead these same agency members are now portrayed as not only evil but bumbling and come to the conclusion the creature was snatched by 10 specially trained Russian forces instead of two cleaning ladies and a sympathetic scientist. Meanwhile, the security guard who got a good look at Giles and was injected by Dimitri is an ignored casualty. The guard's murder is shrugged off by our "heroes" and Elisa gives it no thought even though it was her fault.

Once in her apartment she puts Giles at further risk by asking him to babysit the creature, who proceeds to eat one of his cats and gash his arm. Even Elisa doesn’t object when Giles forgives the creature on the grounds it is a “wild thing” and doesn’t understand what it did. So they KNOW it is an animal – a sentient one perhaps on the intelligence level of  dolphin, but an animal. Nonetheless, Elisa continues to care for it and eventually uses it as a — tub toy, filling her entire bathroom up to the ceiling with water. This foolish action puts the movie theater above which she lives at serious threat of collapsing. Water drips into the owner’s struggling movie house and shoos away the patrons, and floods the upstairs portion of the building, likely doing serious damage to the business of the owner, a man who has been nothing but kind to her.

At the end when she and the creature escape she leaves her friends behind to explain to police and federal authorities about three dead men – the guard, Strickland, and Dimitri, as well as a conspiratorial break-in and theft of a highly valuable animal. Zelda and Giles will probably go to jail. Thanks Elisa.

Additionally there is gratuitous sexuality and nudity, plus demonstrations of sadistic violence and cruelty especially towards the captive creature. They even take a random stab at blasphemy by declaring the creature a “god” because of his healing powers.

In a horrifying lapse of judgement, for even the jaded and agenda-driven Oscar voters, this is one of the best picture nominees.

To paraphrase a joke about the assassination at Ford’s Theatre – "So, aside from the bigotry, bestiality, blasphemy, brutality, buck nakedness and… misanthrope (an almost completely alliterative list) Mrs. Lincoln, how was the movie?"

To which she could quote Rhett: "sheer waste".