Instant Family (2018) – Comprehensive Review

Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:

Instant Family (2018) is a very unique movie in that it is very clear the team actually talked to people from the child welfare system before and during the process of creating the film. After so many different depictions of the child welfare system and the children within it, it is a refreshing and raw viewing experience that honestly shows the experiences of both foster children and foster parents alike as they navigate all of the challenges that come with family reunification programs, learning to communicate and love within a blended family, and the stark reality of how desperately children in care need a caring adult who won’t give up through naked selfies, food tantrums, and hairbrushes in the toilet. This movie does deal with traumatic elements BUT it is so important how the traumatic elements are not in the driver’s seat for this film. Throughout the film it is reinforced that even when adults are still learning to parent traumatized children that they are able to be bigger, stronger, wiser protectors for the children in their care. For this reason, I highly recommend any family remotely considering adoption or foster care view this film and that current caregivers give this movie a chance for some much needed validation of how tough but worth it caring for children with trauma can be.

There are some intense emotional moments, foul language, and sexual/drug references so this is not a film that should be viewed with children under 12 or 13, but caregivers should very much consider each child in their home even if they are “old enough” as there are several potential triggers in the film that may affect individual youth. This is definitely a film to talk to your youth about after the film and to ensure that you are up to speed on your own state’s child welfare system policies if children ask questions about the fictional policies in the film.

** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **

How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?

Instant Family (2018) is probably the most relevant film to adoption and foster care I have reviewed so far in my time with Transfiguring Adoption. I will never forget the first time I heard about this movie from a colleague. She told me of how she found herself recognizing so many family situations working within the child welfare system and hearing the actors use the same terms she was under her breath was surprising and so refreshing. After viewing the film myself I must agree. There are going to be a few things played up for Hollywood suspense of course and the film does play by policies created to further the plot (i.e. – cell phone policy, how visitation was conducted, how courts included children, having the same social workers for classes and case management, etc.) but overall this is the best depiction of a foster parent’s experience in working with the child welfare system. In the United States, this film was actually endorsed by several state child welfare systems and agencies as a recruitment tool and continued education tools.

Discussion Points:

  • Grief and Loss
    Just the act of being removed from the family of origin and all that is familiar and being placed somewhere else is highly traumatic to children. If we imagine being removed from our everyday life with nothing but the clothing on our backs and being put somewhere else where we had no control over what we ate, what we did, and where we went I think we all would meet the drastic change with some resistance (and in my case, a LOT of resistance whether it was a good change or not)! And this does not even begin to cover all of the other losses and sources of grief a child may have endured as a result of traumatic events. Our children need a caregiver willing to navigate the messy, uncomfortable experience of grief and loss to prepare them for the future when they are older and may have to endure such things on their own. Though it will be tempting to push away these feelings in favor of cheering the child up (as none of us like to see children suffer) it is an important task for a caregiver to quietly accept a child’s pain and help them walk through it so that they do not have to take that emotional journey alone anymore.
  • Felt Safety vs. Actual Safety & Boundary Testing
    For children and youth in the child welfare system, adults are not always viewed as a source of safety and security. Rather, many children have endured adults acting as both the perpetrators of abuse and neglect or as incompetent persons that are incapable of keeping children and youth safe. For this reason an older youth especially will constantly test the caregiver to ensure that the caregiver will provide care and enforce boundaries that promote felt safety. We can see the transition of actual safety to felt safety in each of the children as they adjust to the Wagner home. As routine, structure, and safety is reinforced each of the children are seen letting their guard down and allowing the Wagners to engage as parents. Of course, this process has no straight path and has bumps along the way, but even when it felt like they took a step back with child and youth behaviors it provided an opportunity for new growth and moving forward as a united family.
  • Behaviors Communicating Need
    Throughout the film behaviors were shown by the children as means for them to communicate needs in the only language they knew. Lita is shown acting out over food insecurity and melting down over toys. Juan is shown being impulsive and spaced out, showing where his brain is so overwhelmed that it cannot continue with executive functioning and follow through with tasks without incident. And Lizzie constantly pushes boundaries, triangulates adults, and acts out against her foster mother in her grief for her biological mother in communicating various needs for safety from disappointment, connection with peers, and need for control in her very out of control life. There are so many other examples throughout the film, but it is important for caregivers to practice trauma informed strategies to look beyond the behaviors and see what the hurting child needs under the surface so that they may have that need fulfilled, decrease anxiety and fear, and then learn positive communication skills.
  • The Identity of a Foster Youth
    Lizzie often talks about what other people expect of “fosters”, especially teens like herself. Caregivers should remember that children from the children welfare system often pick up on stereotypes perpetuated by those on the outside and may internalize them as truth and identity. For this reason it is very important for children and youth from the system to have a sense of normalcy for appropriate development (i.e. – extracurricular activities, social opportunities, jobs/volunteer opportunities, etc.) and that caregivers be mindful of how they refer to the children and youth in their home. Caregivers should not use child welfare system terms such as “Level 3 child”, “group home kid”, etc. outside of the child and family team setting for this reason.

Cautionary Points:

  • Separation from Birth Parent
    Any level of separation from a primary attachment is highly traumatic to a child, especially when separation has become permanent from incarceration of a parent, death of a parent, or the severing of parental rights legally. For this reason, a caregiver needs to be very cautious in allowing a child that struggles with grief and loss in viewing this film as the children depicted are placed with a pre-adoptive home, move back towards reunification, and are then abandoned by a birth parent again. These are things that children from the child welfare system directly struggle with in many cases and a caregiver should be prepared for the emotions a youth may experience from seeing Lizzie’s raw experiences and emotions throughout the process especially, but also for younger siblings Lita and Juan who don’t understand the reunification process.
  • Foul Language & Use of Negative Stereotypes
    Throughout the film youth, foster parents, and case workers are all shown using foul language including, but not limited to, the words “bitch”, “dick”, and descriptions of the male anatomy concerning an issue with Lizzie swapping naked pictures. There are also moments where caseworker Karen grows unprofessional in how she responds to questions from Pete and Ellie concerning the biological family.
  • Youth Shown Engaging in Risky Behavior
    Throughout the film Lizzie engages in troubling behaviors such as runaway, triangulating adults, sneaking friends into the family home, sending naked selfies, pursuing a relationship with an adult man, etc. While several of these depictions are real behaviors children from the child welfare system some youth may struggle with seeing the behaviors if a youth is triggered by viewing an unsafe behavior.
  • Accidental Harm to Foster Child
    Poor Juan throughout the film is shown as a very anxious and accident prone child. Some of these are not as intense such as getting hit in the head with basketballs and footballs but during a particularly intense moment Juan drops a nail gun and shoots a nail into his foot. The injured foot is only shown as having blood seeping through the top of the shoe before being tied up in a shirt and taken to the hospital, but a youth may be triggered by harm coming to a foster youth in a film.
  • Incidents Involving Foster Parents with Law Enforcement and Home Investigation
    While many foster homes do go through foster home investigations due to allegations of various sorts, it is not normal for foster parents to become vigilantes in investigating sexual impropriety between a foster youth and another nor for them to be arrested for any reason. The foster parents should have contacted their caseworker after the incident with the naked pictures with Lizzie arose and should not have pursued the perpetrator and/or assaulted the perpetrator. Watching a foster parent engage in such violence can be highly traumatic for children that have endured trauma as these are the adults they should be learning are safe. This is a point to be cautious with while viewing the film, though it is intentionally overplayed a bit I’m sure for suspense.
  • Depictions of Courtrooms
    Attending court, or even knowing a court appointment is occurring, is often a source of anxiety for children of the child welfare system whether it is due to hoping to go home (like Lizzie) or being afraid of the unknown (like the younger children probably experienced). For this reason, some youth may be triggered by the progress reviews in court though it is not their own case they are watching.
  • Unsupportive Extended Family
    Ellie’s family is shown as extremely unsupportive throughout the film. There is some growth that occurs but some children may have experienced unfair treatment from extended foster families that don’t have the trauma informed care experience and education a foster parent receives.

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NOTE: Inclusion on these lists does not necessarily mean endorsement. Furthermore, with all our resources, we highly recommend you preview them first to determine if there are any trauma triggers that your child may not be ready to handle. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its reviews to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.

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