Nov 22

“Instant Family”: Humor in Foster Family Adoption

I think when people hear the words ‘foster care’ it brings to mind a lot of negativity and fear, and what I found in my travels through the system, over and over again, is that you meet the kids, and you go “Oh, they’re just kids. They’re just kids, and they need families and they need love, and they have love to give, just like any other kids.” Sean Anders, director of Instant Family (Harvard Crimson)

Film director Sean Anders reportedly hopes that not only will audiences have fun watching Instant Family they’ll also learn something about foster care adoption. A “comedy with good intentions” (The New York Times), Instant Family is based on the real-life experiences of Anders and his wife, who adopted three siblings from the foster care system.

From the official Instant Family description (on Rotten Tomatoes):

When Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) decide to start a family, they stumble into the world of foster care adoption. They hope to take in one small child but when they meet three siblings, including a rebellious 15 year old girl (Isabela Moner), they find themselves speeding from zero to three kids overnight.

An added bonus is the special team helping the couple (Angelus News):

Working through a pair of social workers — a by-the-books woman (Tig Notaro) and her sassy partner (Octavia Spencer) — they join a support group that’s designed to teach them about the difficulties inherent to adopting foster kids.

The trailer might be enough to interest you in helping some needy kids—or maybe not:

Anders has described his personal experiences with adoption in a Time essay:

In 2012 we got three siblings: an 18-month-old, a three-year-old and a six-year-old. We were told they’d been removed from their mother because she had a drug problem. I wasn’t worried. I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this. I’m going to be great at this.’ Then they showed up and it was like: ‘We’ve made a horrible, horrible mistake.’ The first few months were really rough. We would lie in bed at night and just try to figure out some way that we could get them out of our house. They were completely ruining all of our fun. When you get three at once you don’t have time to get your sea legs. It was kind of like babysitting someone else’s kids, but forever.

Having a sense of humor is a key asset, Anders told Peter T. Chattaway (Patheos). While those families in the know will probably appreciate the comedy involved in the film, others may carry some skepticism: “‘Oh, are they going to make fun of kids in foster care?’ And of course, that’s not what we’re doing at all,” states Anders.

Realistic events like social worker-led foster parent training classes as well as adoption picnics, at which interested parties get to meet foster kids, are depicted in Instant Family. Also, of course, the effort to keep siblings together.

Additionally, there’s a significant reason behind Anders making one of the adopted kids in Instant Family a teenager. Per Refinery29, “older children are less likely to become adopted. Within 18 months of ‘aging out’ of the system at age 18, 40-50% of teens are likely to become homeless.”

Jul 03

“A Kid Like Jake”: Gender Nonconforming Preschooler

New film A Kid Like Jake, based on Daniel Pearle‘s same-titled play, comes to us from transgender director Silas Howard. If it’s not actually playing in a theater near you, you can find it where I did, for rent on Amazon Prime.

Although the title seems to indicate the “kid” is the star, we see very little of Jake. A Kid Like Jake is actually more about the parents. Amy Nicholson, Variety, introduces the film:

…4-year-old Jake (Leo James Davis) is creative, stubborn, and smart — qualities that aren’t special enough to guarantee a scholarship to a competitive New York private school. Jake’s also transgender, maybe, or as his preschool advisor Judy (Octavia Spencer) describes him, ‘gender expansive.’ Judy suggests Jake’s parents Alex and Greg (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) include his princess play in their applications, the first pebble in what slowly becomes an emotional avalanche that threatens their marriage.

Further description of Jake’s parents by Emily Yoshida, Vulture: “Alex, a retired lawyer, is a walking ball of neuroses whose anxieties rattle out of her mouth a mile a minute, and Greg, a therapist, is watchful and diplomatic as the couple run around from interview to interview.”

Greg we come to know better via his therapeutic style—which not only plays out in his office but also at home. He, for example, appears passive, indirect, neutral, and inclined toward Freudian-type analyses of behavior.

A lawyer who’s now mainly a homemaker, Alex’s ability to nurture Jake may have developed in counter-response to having a critical, controlling mom, who’s seen off and on throughout the film. It’s Alex, though, who as a parent has more difficulty grasping the depth of Jake’s gender issues.

A Kid Like Jake, suggests Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter, “strives to present an even-handed account of the couple’s increasingly divergent views, with Alex resistant to ‘putting a label’ on their child, and Greg more open to embracing Jake’s transgender nature.” Not surprisingly, Greg is the parent who’s open to Jake seeing a child therapist to help him adjust.

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com, regarding other characterizations:

Friends and family members might mean well—or at least tell themselves they mean well—but end up saying something inadvertently dismissive or demeaning. The always-great Ann Dowd, as Alex’s judgey, passive-aggressive mother, tries to impose her will on everybody all the time, but eventually reveals unexpected complexity to her character. Priyanka Chopra, as Alex’s good friend and the mom of one of Jake’s schoolmates, might not be as trustworthy as she initially seemed. People are imperfect.

See the trailer below:

The stage origins of A Kid Like Jake are evident in its level of talkiness, and film critiques have been decidedly mixed. In closing, excerpts from several reviews that zero in on why this is so:

Amy Nicholson, Variety: “It’s a credible portrait of two good people fumbling with a dilemma: Should Jake be given a label he’s yet to request? The script’s central irony is that while angry kids are ordered to use their words, adults talk endlessly without ever saying what they mean. The same goes for the film, which starts a conversation it doesn’t fully dare to explore.”

Alex Barasch, Slate: “An authentic, conversational messiness we rarely see on screen.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “…might not be especially cinematic, but it is profound in its simplicity and truthfulness about what real fights sound like and what real lives look like.”

Apr 17

“Call Me Crazy”: Five Shorts About Mental Health Issues

Airing for the first time this coming Saturday is Lifetime’s Call Me Crazy: A Five Film (“Life is anything but normal”) starring Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer, Brittany Snow, Melissa Leo, Ernie Hudson, Jason Ritter, Jean Smart, Lea Thompson, Melanie Griffith, and more.

Mental health issues such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia are featured in five interconnected brief pieces. Lifetime reports, “Through the five shorts named after each title character — Lucy, Eddie, Allison, Grace and Maggie – powerful relationships built on hope and triumph raise a new understanding of what happens when a loved one struggles with mental illness.”

Each character in Call Me Crazy may show up in other stories in addition to her own. Lucy (Brittany Snow), a law student diagnosed with schizophrenia, is in three of the shorts, for example.

At least one therapist will be portrayed. Octavia Spencer, who plays Lucy’s therapist, talks about the Call Me Crazy with Erin Hill, Parade:

‘I hope that viewers learn that people with mental illness deserve a shot at a productive life and deserve to not be defined by their illness,’ she says. ‘I didn’t realize how many people don’t get the support and therapy that they need to live productive lives. We need to take that step to learn as much as we can about mental illness because those diseases are non-discriminating — age, gender, socioeconomic or educational background — it doesn’t matter. The more we know, the more equipped we are to aid people who might be in our family or set of friends.’

A movie trailer is available below:

Nov 08

“Smashed”: Obstacles in Early Sobriety For Alcoholic

For her role as Kate in Smashed, a new movie co-written and directed by James Ponsoldt about an alcoholic teacher, lead actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead really did her homework. Per an interview with Daily Actor:

I spent a lot of time in AA meetings, I spent a lot of time with James just really carving out Kate’s backstory and becoming really, really specific about that. And just spending a lot of time on myself and my own issues emotionally. It was a lot like, just, therapy. Working through my own stuff. That ended up being the most important thing, the thing that connected me the most to the character — sort of relating my struggles to her struggles and my issues to her issues, and sort of linking those two things up. It was an amazing experience.

According to many reviews, apparently it paid off.

Susan Burke, age 30, the other writer of Smashed, admits she has an intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be Kate. Although the movie is not about her, she has admitted that she’s been sober since the age of 24.

Michael NordineVillage Voicedescribes the story:

Kate has already hit rock bottom at film’s beginning—no, seriously. She wets the bed, pukes in front of a classroom full of first-graders, and smokes crack within the first 10 minutes and spends the rest of it clawing her way back into civilized society. Smashed is as much about recovery as it is about addiction, with Ponsoldt successfully making the case that the 12 steps are sometimes more difficult than whatever necessitated them in the first place. Kate’s main obstacle in her struggle isn’t her own willpower, it turns out, but rather the influence of her enabling husband, Charlie (an equally good Aaron Paul, no stranger to this sort of material), who, having never hit the same lows as his wife, can’t quite see the point in getting on the wagon.

Therapy is involved in Kate’s recovery attempts, at least at some point and to some degree. Joe NeumaierNew York Daily News, reports that “(a)fter one night too many of booze and drugs, Kate halfheartedly tries therapy — partly out of curiosity, it seems, but also out of an inchoate sense of desperation …” How does it turn out? He doesn’t say—nor can I find the answer elsewhere.

Included in the cast of characters are some helpers, such as her AA sponsor (Octavia Spencer) and the vice principal of Kate’s school (Nick Offerman), who’s in recovery himself.

In the category of non-helpers, there’s Kate’s enabling spouse, of course, as well as her mom (Mary Kay Place), who evidently has her own untreated alcohol issues.

Although Kate is generally perceived by reviewers to have “hit bottom” before getting help, critic Christy LemireAssociated Presscomplains that Kate’s “…bottom isn’t low enough, the struggle isn’t difficult enough, and the characters (especially the supporting ones) don’t feel developed enough to provide necessary context for our heroine’s journey.”

Notably, though, the current thinking on this subject is that you don’t have to hit bottom before seeking help. It’s actually ill-advised and risky.

And now, the Smashed trailer: