In the new, heartwarming comedy Instant Family, out Nov. 16, a couple who find themselves stuck in a rut decide to look into becoming foster parents. Because children in the foster care system face challenges their peers don't, as an op-ed in The Guardian describes, the subject matter in this movie isn't exactly easy to laugh about. But Instant Family uses humor to confront difficult subjects, such as the white-savior complex and damaging stereotypes about young people in the system. That makes it a natural fit for Rose Byrne, an actor who adeptly balances drama and comedy in just about everything she does.
"I think it’s from the same place," Byrne, who plays Ellie, says during a press junket in New York City. "It’s from the same wellspring. Tears and laughter, it’s the same sort of instinctual very primal emotion, so I approach [comedy] the same way, like it’s a drama."
Byrne's character and her husband Pete (Mark Wahlberg) flip houses for a living. They buy properties, and Pete, a contractor, re-builds them while Ellie designs the interiors. Their dynamic is exactly like that of Chip and Joanna Gaines — shiplap included — and the movie doesn't let that comparison go unacknowledged.
But as funny as meta jokes about addictive remodeling shows are, Instant Family doesn't hold back in portraying the struggles Ellie, Pete, and their foster children face once the couple decides to expand their family. The stigma that affects older children in the foster care system is addressed, and so are the less than charitable reasons why some people become foster parents, like the government subsidies and tax breaks.
"It gets you in with the laughs and sort of punches you in the gut with the tears," Byrne says.
As you can imagine, Byrne felt hesitant about tackling such sensitive subject matter, but she credits Instant Family writer and director Sean Anders for pulling off the seemingly impossible task of creating a crowd-pleasing comedy that doesn't sugarcoat the tough stuff. The movie is based on Anders' own experience, adopting three children from the foster care system. "If it hadn’t been Sean, I would’ve been really worried, and I don’t know if I would’ve done it but because it was his story I trusted him and I thought, ‘I see how your family is everything to you, you want to tell this story to inspire people,'" Byrne says. "There is a terrible stigma and he really just wants to diminish that."
Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, and Julianna Gamiz play Lizzy, Juan, and Lita, respectively — the three siblings who Ellie and Pete foster in the film. Both the funniest and most poignant parts of the movie occur during various trials and triumphs in the parents' attempts to create a cohesive family unit. At points, the audience might feel uncomfortable laughing, because certain jokes are deeply realistic. Juan has a tendency to be clumsy, which leads to hilarious mishaps, but then he immediately apologizes profusely for his actions, which is likely due to his trauma from past abuse.
The chaos in some scenes is troubling on top of being funny, because it feels like the movie is giving you a glimpse into what real foster kids and foster parents go through when assimilating into a family. But Byrne pulls it off, and she knew what was at stake.
"I didn’t want to screw it up, and tonally we figured it out on the way and I always knew tonally it would be in the edit and Sean would say that too. We would push the comedy too far and then bring it back," Byrne says. While the actor credits the direction for perfecting the film's tone, Byrne herself has a way with nailing that sad-happy brand of comedy.
As much pressure as Byrne felt while portraying Anders' story, the actor tells me that she prefers to play roles that are rooted in reality, which means you probably won't see her in a superhero movie anytime soon. "I’ve never gravitated toward that, but I have two boys [so] it’s all I’m going to be doing for the next 25 years," she says with a laugh. "I'm gonna be seeing every single f*cking superhero movie."
Even if she might not exactly love the big-budget superhero movies that seem to come out monthly, Byrne is still hopeful for the future of film because we're no longer seeing the same stories being told over and over again. "I just feel like the old formula doesn’t really work cause that’s not what we see in the world," she says. "Like look at Crazy Rich Asians, look at Atlanta, look at these fabulous shows and films and it’s so much more interesting right?"
Byrne's breakout comedic role happened in a film that's renowned for expanding assumptions about who women can be on screen. "I would put Bridesmaids in that category," Byrne says, nodding to the 2011 comedy as one of those that changed up "the old formula." Bridesmaids became the top R-rated female-driven comedy the year of its release, thereby opening the door for other raunchy R-rated movies starring lots of funny women, like Rough Night and Girls Trip. And because life sometimes brings you full circle, Girls Trip star Tiffany Haddish and Byrne are actually teaming up in a movie that's set to come out in 2019. "That’s going to be thrilling, to work with her," Byrne says.
And while that's sure to be riotous, you can also bet that it will have at least a little bit of emotional impact. Because not every movie or series easily falls into one genre or another. Byrne's philosophy about it all is simple and to the point: "All you can try to do is make good stuff that’s like life."