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Sean Anders ‘Instant Family’ to fix foster care system narrative

November 16, 2018

Movie director Sean Anders wants nothing less than to “change the narrative about foster care” with his new family comedy-drama.

Mr. Anders, who wrote and directed the crowd-pleasing “Daddy’s Home” comedies, has a personal stake in “Instant Family,” which opens Friday. He adopted three children from the foster care system, much like what happens with the film’s leads, Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne.

The actors portray a happily married couple entering middle age and wanting to start a family. A series of circumstances lead them to the foster care system, where they meet a teenage Hispanic girl and her two younger siblings. The couple impulsively adopt all three.

It isn’t easy, though. Emotional conflicts flare. The children’s birth mother re-enters the picture. The film refuses to sugarcoat the hard truths about the subject.

“Instant Family” is technically fiction, but Mr. Anders drew on his own experiences and those of others touched by the foster care system to shape the narrative. It’s one reason audiences will laugh a lot despite the film’s serious subject matter.

“So many movies ... on this topic are generally gut-wrenching dramas. Even the really good ones tend to send people away with feelings of fear, trepidation or pity,” said Mr. Anders, who brought his own children to the set on more than a few occasions. “In my personal story, there are definitely elements of trauma and tragedy, but there’s also so much laughter and love.”

The statistics on foster care services offer plenty of the former. Children’s Rights, a New York-based nonprofit which protects children against broken child welfare services, estimates there are roughly 438,000 children in U.S. foster care on any given day.

The average age of a foster child is 7, and too many children end up becoming separated from their siblings at various points in their journeys.

Every draft of the script, he said, attempted to find the right balance between humor and heartache.

Miss Byrne, who gave birth to her second son last November before taking on the film, acknowledged that she didn’t know much about the foster care system before production began.

“Literally, once I read [the script] ... and then I started to do research, I was, like, ‘I am all in.’ It was, like, this is much bigger than just this movie,” the Australian actress told E! News. “This is about a community. This is about destigmatizing these kids, and it’s bringing joy to these kids.

“And it was really a much bigger thing than I knew. I was naive,” Miss Byrne said.

Mr. Wahlberg’s attachment to the film offered an obvious boost, given his box office appeal. But Mr. Anders said the star offered something beyond marquee value. Mr. Wahlberg, the youngest of nine children and a father of four, signed up mere hours after receiving Mr. Anders’ pitch, avoiding the standard runaround involving agents, negotiations and other common complications.

Their first conversations focused on “the [foster] kids he’s met over the years,” the director said.

Maraide Green, a former foster child and a consultant on “Instant Family,” said the film debunks a key element of the foster care narrative.

“I know my birth mom. She’s not a villain, not evil. ... I wanted to make sure Sean depicted her in the right way,” said Ms. Green, to whom Mr. Anders sent the first draft of the script and continued their collaboration during the production.

She added that the film doesn’t diminish the poor choices the birth mother made along the way, though.

Some often assume that foster children are “lost causes” because of the trauma they have experienced, she added, another stereotype the film deflates.

Mr. Anders and his team will be watching the critical opening weekend ticket sales. He said the most nerve-wracking moment has already happened, though.

Paramount screened the film in St. Paul, Minnesota, for an audience filled with foster care professionals.

“I was scared to show them the movie. I really wanted their approval,” the writer-director said.

The subsequent standing ovation “Instant Family” earned “was one of the greatest moments of my life,” he said, adding that he was moved to tears during some of the pre-release screenings after hearing foster care stories from audience members.

One movie can’t change the foster care system or how it’s perceived in our culture. Still, Mr. Anders wants audiences to come away with a fresh perspective on the process.

“People have a lot of fear and negative feelings when they hear the words, ‘foster care,’” he said. “I hope when people are finished with the movie and are driving home they have a more positive outlook on who these kids are.”

“It’ll change the way they talk about [foster care],” Ms. Green said.

Mr. Anders is living his own foster care happy ending, and it’s not just for the children he adopted.

“It’s not just about helping kids,” he said. “It’s about changing your life for the better.”

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