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.

 

 

ADRIFT – WASTED OPPORTUNITY

SHORT TAKE:

Wooden cookie cutter rendition of the harrowing real life experiences of Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp lost at sea for 41 days after being caught in Hurricane Raymond, missing every opportunity to reveal any eternal truths.

WHO COULD SEE IT:

Any older teen and up who enjoys a disaster/endurance movie. Some language and a non-sexual full nudity female scene. No point in scaring younger kids with the genuinely frightening hurricane scenes in this vapid soap opera disaster movie.

LONG TAKE:

The famous classic – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – a man marooned on an island – is ultimately about his spiritual conversion from a materialist and slaver, disobedient to both his Earthly father and his Heavenly one, to a devout Christian. His external trials make him suceptible when faced with internal struggles as well, to turn to God and the Bible. Only in his newly redisovered faith does he find the peace and contentment he had sought and becomes a better man as he comes to appreciate God's love and know he is under his Creator's watchful eye even when apparently desolate and alone on an island. The island represents Crusoe's spiritual aloneness and, much like in Groundhog Day, (which comparison would make a great blog for another day), he is not rescued until he learns true altruism and his place in God's plans.  He accepts his massive and repeated tribulations as a reading on the Bible tells us in Hebrews that: "the Lord disciplines the one He loves".

Adrift is an open set up for a re-creation of this scenario. A troubled young woman, who drifted through life long before she was set "adrift" by Hurricane Raymond, has a difficult childhood, irresponsible parents and an anchorless way of life – leaving home at 18 to hop her way via odd jobs to Tahiti. There she meets Richard and the two leave for a "jaunt" to San Diego on a job to transport a friend’s yacht. On the way they encounter a CAT 5 hurricane, which I personally know is terrifying on land. Even seeing the movie, I can not truly imagine the trauma they must have endured on the open ocean. I frankly, having survived Hurricane Rita on land, had trouble watching some of their ordeal in the boat.

The film does a horrifically good job reenacting their desperate struggle to stay alive in the belly of this mountain sized monster with waves moaning and rising above them like the "angry giant" of many prayers entreating God’s protection against these very phenomena. Miraculously the boat survives with Tami still on it. She finds Richard severely injured and seeks to nurse both him and the boat in a 1500 mile trek through the Pacific Ocean.

While I understand this is based on a true story, there was every opportunity for the scriptwriters to use her ordeal and miraculous arrival in Hawaii to tell more than just an action adventure story of survival. A documentary or reality episode or a newspaper clipping could have done that. If we are to endure, with Tami, her terrible struggles, it behooves a good writer to do so with a purpose. Instead we are treated to a fact sheet: She meets Richard – check. They fall in love – check. They go on the boat – check. They endure a Hurricane – check. She manages to acquire enough food and water to survive through luck and ingenuity – check. She gets to Hawaii – check. And……?

After spending 96 minutes with this young woman in a recounting of the most traumatic experience of her life (and more traumatic than I hope most of us ever have to endure) we are left knowing no more about her than we started at the credits. A few odds and ends of trivia about the way she grew up, but no more.

I can not imagine anyone not changed by such a deeply churning experience. Sadly, we do not know, based upon this movie, what those meaningful and core maturations might be.

What we are left with is a two person version of Tom Hanks’ Castaway – which suffered from the same flaw. All "event" with no substance. Much like having spaghetti with no sauce – filling but not satisfying.

As I said, the special effects of the hurricane were very well done – a bit too good frankly. The acting of Shailene Woodley (Divergent series) kind of amounted to a lot of vapid shallow smiles and giggles during the courtship and sunburnt glowering/angry/determined to survive faces during the tribulations part. Sam Claflin (Hunger Games veteran) wasn’t given a lot to do other than be "in love" or stoically be in pain.

And while I understand this is based on a true story, the portions where the movie shows their meeting and relationship, shown in flashback, are pedantically slow. The audience frequently was reduced to the third wheel watching the slow pace of an actual dinner.

During one such date Richard explains how unpleasant sailing can be – "You’re usually sleep deprived and delusional, wet, hungry or all three." She asks why he sails and, perking up, I expected some important philosophical epiphany which might guide us, like her sextant through the rest of the movie. Instead he sort of mumbles about how infinite the horizon looks. And? I thought. And? But nothing. So his whole raison d'etre, the entire reason he is out there with this young woman, the reason they end up risking their lives in a painfully unrelenting endurance marathon was because —– the ocean is so very pretty.

There is so much more that could have been done with this movie – just with that moment. But they let it flit by like Tami’s early years – objectless and purposeless.

Captain Dan in Forrest Gump (click the picture to watch the clip) gives us more philosophical musings and a better insight into the meaning of life during his one rant to God on board Gump's ship during a hurricane as he screams "Come on! You call this a storm?" than the entire script of Adrift. Bogie and Hepburn simmered with more chemistry in one glance on The African Queen during their struggles as they make it up a river to confront a German gunboat during World War I and a storm, than Claflin and Woodley managed in the entire movie. This is because we were introduced to Captain Dan and Rose and Charlie, respectively, in substantive ways and so we come to care about them. But Tami and Richard, as portrayed in the movie, are two dimensional lovers in a cookie-cutter romance. This is a shame because I'm sure there was more to the real people involved in that.

Aside from – don't cross the ocean in hurricane season – the audience did not learn much, either about the main characters or from their experiences.

I feel badly for the ordeal that Tami and Richard went through but that is not enough to carry a movie. A movie has between 80 and 120 minutes to tell you a story. It behooves the writer to make it worth your while to sit through whatever they are going to tell you. Movies are supposed to be a condensed version of real life and the best of them will make you a better person for having seen it. It is inadequate for a movie to be a moment-by-moment blow-by-blow exposition without direction or purpose.

In short and unfortunately Adrift is most aptly and appropriately named.

Mild warnings: There's no reason NOT to see this film if you are an older teen and up. There is a bit of language, no gratuitous sexuality although there is one non-sexual gratuitously naked scene where Woodley bares absolutely all in order to happily writhe about on deck in the fresh water of rain. The hurricane scenes alone are horrifying and way too scary for younger kids, much less are the views of eggregious injuries endured by Richard and exposed to the audience.

THE MIRACLE SEASON – INSPIRING TRUE LIFE EXAMPLE OF OVERCOMING GRIEF THROUGH PURPOSE AND FAITH

SHORT TAKE:

The Miracle Season accurately and lovingly recounts the 2010 Iowa City West High School volleyball state champions' attempt to win the trophy a second time after the tragic death of their team captain and town’s indefatiguably optimistic and joyful Caroline Found.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everybody and anybody. Especially anyone interested in sports in general and volleyball in particular. Completely clean without a single bad word, zero hanky panky, and a genuine respect for religion. However, the youngest in the family might get bored.

SOME INDIRECT BUT UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS

LONG TAKE:

Movies have three big vehicles they use for bonding people together: putting on a show, sports, or a disaster (See my article on "Cataclysm as Marital Therapy"). The Miracle Season uses two of them, sports and disaster, to recreate a series of events which bond and heal a small town in Iowa, a heartbroken high school team, and friends and family near the epicenter of a tragedy.

The story recounts the real life events of the Found family and those who love them. Ernie Found (the versatilely talented William Hurt of everything from General and Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross in the Marvel movies to Nick the self destructive drug dealer in The Big Chill) is the devoted husband to his dying wife Ellyn (Jilliam Fargey) and the father of three young adults. The youngest, Caroline, "Line" to those who know her, (played by Danika Yarosh), is the Captain of the team and a loving, free-spirited, open hearted, energetic, joy-filled young woman whose wholesome enthusiasm for life and people is infectious and makes her a natural leader both of her team and in life to her friends. There is no spoiler, as it is the feature of the trailer that Caroline’s life was cut short by a vehicular accident.

Grief is the most challenging opponent for everyone in the film. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life Clarence reminds George that: "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" The Miracle Season recounts how those touched lives heal from the terrible wound left by the loss of this young lady.

Directed by Sean McNamara, who has concentrated on true-life inspirational stories like Soul Surfer and Hoovey, The Miracle Season centers around the 2010 Iowa City State Volleyball Champions. Caroline Found is the Captain of the team and the start of their season in 2011 is off to a slow start. They lose their first few games even before the tragedy. After Caroline’s death they forfeit the next game, as their coach notes that, "They can barely brush their teeth," let alone practice or compete. Appealing to Caroline’s best friend Kelley, (Erin Moriarty) long time Coach Kathy "Bres" Bresnahan (the terrific Helen Hunt who is at home in comedies like the charming TV show "Mad About You," dramedies like As Good as it Gets, dramas like Pay it Forward, and other inspirational films like Soul Surfer) encourages her not to give up in a "Win one for the Gipper" theme, which, ultimately falls short of what the team needs.

To add insult to injury, Dr. Found’s wife succumbs to her long illness the night after Caroline’s wake, Dr. Found’s faith sinks to a lifetime low, Bres' husband has left her, Kelley feels woefully unprepared to replace Caroline as Captain, and the girls can’t even get through practice without crying. With no where to go but up the rest of the tale addresses a courage subsequently shown by Dr. Found, the girls on the team, Kelley, and Coach Bres that all of us would be blessed to have. (NOTE: As a small but significant FYI, Dr. Found states he did not have a crisis of faith but understood the need to dramatize this point. Dr. Found's character in the movie gave voice to all of us who might question our beliefs when required to face such calamatous wrenching events, acknowledging the need to address this deep wound along with the others inflicted in terrible situations such as these, as well as the courage and resilience to think of others instead of one's own pain.)

Ultimately, everyone must learn to wrestle their own anger, pain, and self doubt before healing can truly begin. This would all seem like so much soap opera tear wringing, except that it really happened. Not many movies are made about this kind of event because, thankfully, it doesn’t happen that often. But, watching The Miracle Season, I was reminded of another movie that dealt with a similar tragedy.

United was a BBC film starring David Tennant (best Dr. Who EVER!) about the 1958 football season which followed a take-off air crash that claimed the lives of half the Manchester United football team, leaving two of the remaining team members too injured to ever play again. Nonetheless, the chief coach and assistant manager (Tennant) managed to pull together a team from the survivors, reservists and a few new signers which made it to the FA Final Cup in 1958.

Both United and The Miracle Season are beautifully and movingly done memorials to the tragedy and the stalwart perseverance, courage and fortitude shown by the survivors and their loved ones.

Rarely, outside of a Marvel movie, have fellow audience members stayed through the credits, the way I normally do. Although patrons sounded as though they had come down suddenly with a slight head cold and kleenexes were pulled out, to a person they stayed put as video clips, biographical notes, photos and interview bites were displayed alongside the cast and crew credits. Photos of Caroline Found, interview segments with Dr. Found, video of Mrs. Found’s trembling courageous smile as she painfully walked down the church aisle at her daughter’s wake,  sports announcers who did color, clips of the real team, and headlines about the team during this incredible season all testified to the detail accuracy of the film we had just watched. And, in what I thought was justifiable pride, the clip of the final point from the real game was played – and showed it had been dead on accurately and honestly re-created in the movie.

I have played volleyball in both high school and college. I was not very good. But I played enough to at least recognize good when I see it. The girls in the news clips were amazing and the actresses who played the girls in the movie did a fine job re-enacting some very tricky plays. I really enjoyed the presentation of the games. The writer neither dwells on nor avoids obscure minutia of playing techniques but employs volleyball-ese routinely in the dialogue. The director, McNamara, respects the audience and trusts his own editing and filming choices to believe that we viewers will get it – and we do.

They do not make the mistake of over-using the trope of players' overcoming flaws as pivot points of the story but doesn't ignore them either. He allows those small victories to organically build to the final outcome of the Championship moments.

Much like the effective scene in A Chorus Line where the same dance move is repeated in quick succession by a variety of the participants, we see the West team members at various times spike, serve, block, and  bench press. This visual exercise both exemplifies the unity of the teammates as well as serves to demonstrate their individual characters, and serves the pragmatic purpose of adding face time to each player, helping identify each player instead of having them blend unrecognizably into one blur of "team".

There is no Karate Kid bad guy. The only antagonists are illness and accident – the everyday ordinary crises we all face in one form or another, to one degree or another. The winning, as The Miracle Season so beautifully points out, is in how we handle the disasters we are given to face, the gratitude to God with which we face them, and the ability we show to continue to do our best regardless of the odds.

The Miracle Season is an inspiration, not just as a well made sports movie but as an example of shining through even the most terrible of personal tragedies for the benefit of others, if not for yourself.

Sports, at its best, pushes our personal limits, tests our spirit, challenges us to overcome our weaknesses, and reveals the best within us that perhaps we didn't even know was there. Sport champions, at their best, demonstrate these exercises in obtaining virtue. The champions in the Iowa City West high school volleyball team not only had to push through the physical pains of the game but had to learn to deal with the far more brutal agony of grief. Those who loved Caroline Found were champions, not for any accomplishments on the court but because they learned to face all of their pain and showed us how it's done in The Miracle Season.