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How a Filmmaker Used Humor to Shift Public Perception About Adoption

Sean Anders based Instant Family in part on his own experiences before and adopting three children from the foster-care system.

Sean Anders wants to change the stigma regarding children stuck in the foster-care system, and he hopes Instant Family will be a start.

His latest film is a comedy, first and foremost, but it’s also a heart-tugging look at the benefits of adoption for both kids and adults. Anders would know — his three children were adopted under similar circumstances.

“It’s not their fault. They’re victims in a really difficult situation,” Anders said during a recent stop in Dallas. “These kids deserve to be honored for their strength and their resilience for fighting through something that most of us never have to deal with. They just need love and parents.”

The semi-autobiographical script follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), who own a successful house-flipping business but wonder about having children as their window narrows.

Their curiosity leads them online, specifically to the possibility of adopting a child from the foster-care system. Although the couple intends to adopt only one child, they impulsively wind up with three siblings, the oldest of which is Lizzy (Isabela Moner), a rebellious teenager who steadfastly protects her younger brother (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister (Julianna Gamiz).

Subsequent efforts at parent-child bonding are derailed by cultural differences and by Lizzy’s resistance, stemming from hope of a reunion with her drug-addicted biological mother.

Like the couple in the film, Anders and his wife had been talking about whether to have children when he made a joke about not wanting to be an old dad. He joked about adopting a 5-year-old.

“I was totally kidding, but my wife kind of ran with that idea,” Anders said. “That ended up leading us to a website and an orientation.”

Anders attended an adoption fair where the teenage hopefuls sequestered themselves in the corner, resigned to their fate. However, the couple wound up meeting a teenage girl who had a younger brother and sister also in the system, and they were matched together.

About three weeks later, as they were preparing to welcome a teenager into their house, their social worker called and said the girl refused the placement. She was still holding out hope that her mother was still coming for her. That twist inspired the Lizzie character. In real life, Anders wound up with three other siblings, all 6 and younger.

“I really wanted to explore further that area that I didn’t get to go into,” he said. “Even the things that didn’t come out of my life, the emotions are so similar.”

The filmmaker hatched the idea several years ago, but started working on it in earnest after making Daddy’s Home, which starred Wahlberg alongside Will Ferrell. In that film, Ferrell’s character tries to bond with children who are not biological.

While developing the screenplay with his writing partner, John Morris, Anders sought out other families and adoptees, especially teenagers, to incorporate their stories. He even incorporated some adopted kids and their parents as on-screen extras.

“People are either used to seeing this completely sanitized, sugarcoated, unrealistic version of adoption, or if the movies are more researched and realistic, they tend to focus on the trauma and the tragedy of it. Those movies a lot of times send people away having these feelings of fear and pity toward kids in the system,” Anders said. “My experience in the system is that every adoption story begins with some level of tragedy, but there’s also a lot of love and happiness and laughter — a lot of laughter. People weren’t telling that part of the story.”

Anders said he wanted to make a comedy without overdosing on slapstick or making fun of the characters, so finding an honest tone was crucial. He hopes Instant Family acknowledges the difficulties but also spotlights the mutual rewards of adoption.

“It’s such an awkward, chaotic, frustrating, bizarre situation for everybody involved,” he said. “There’s no way you can really be prepared for it. You need to have a sense of humor to get through this.”

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