By Kim Phagan-Hansel
When Director Sean Anders and his wife Beth decided about eight years ago to look into adopting from the foster care system, it started as a joke. After struggling some financially as Anders focused on launching his directing career, they held off on starting a family. So by the time they were ready, Anders joked that maybe they should just skip the early years and adopt a 5-year-old.
“I made this joke that I’m going to be one of those old dads,” Anders said. “But my wife ran with it. That turned into a conversation and then to a visit to a website.”
The couple eventually decided to check out a foster parent orientation which led to them becoming licensed foster-to-adopt parents. Along the way, they learned about kids who needed healthy, safe families to care for them in case reunification efforts with their biological parents didn’t work out.
Seven years ago, 6-year-old Johnny, 3-year-old Charlene and 18-month-old Josh moved into the Anders’ home and have never left. The Anders ultimately ended up adopting them.
That journey of fostering and adopting was profound for Anders, screenwriter for mainstream comedies like “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” and more recently the “Daddy’s Home” films starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell.
Pulling from his own story, Anders has created his new film “Instant Family” starring Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne and Octavia Spencer to reflect the humor, joy and sometimes challenges foster and adoptive parents experience in their parenting journeys.
“There were so many legitimately funny moments,” Anders said. “It was all such a mystery to us. Everything we learned was all new. This is something more people need to learn about.”
Crafting the script by pulling from his own experience and highlighting the funny aspects of their story was the easy part for Anders. But making sure he got it right for all members of the adoption and foster care communities required more work. He consulted with Allison Davis Maxon, who was the regional executive director at the Kinship Center that conducted a home study of Sean and Beth.
When Anders was looking for a professional to help him with the script his original caseworker connected him to Maxon and the two have been working together for a few years now on the project.
“In the first conversation I was so impressed because he hit on my own frustrations that most of the world doesn’t know about foster care and adoption,” Maxon said. “And he wanted this movie to be something every human being would want to see.”
In order to do that, there had to be the perfect mix of getting the foster care and adoption narrative right and crafting something that would pique the interest of a wider general audience.
“None of the laughs come at the expense of the kids or the parents,” Anders said. “We took it very seriously, deciding where it was OK to laugh and where it wasn’t.”
By hosting a few listening sessions with foster and adoptive parents as well as former foster youth, Anders was able to hone in on the common experiences shared by many families. He scripted the film to really focus on the big moments families experience and include as many of those as possible.
“With the kids who had been in care, we asked, ‘What were the pivotal moments for you? At what point were things going in one direction and then it went another?’” Anders said. “It gets into the awkwardness of the first day. Youth are seeing foster and adoptive parents in a different light. Kids are understanding their parents in a different way.”
The film, set to release November 16, has been shown at several adoption-related events, including national conferences for the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) and ATTACh.
“I was a little worried it (the film) was too sunny in its disposition,” Anders said. “The positivity has been overwhelming. People are just so excited to have positive and light shown to it (adoption). It (the film) gets into the joy and positivity of what can come out of it.”
Ultimately, Anders said he wanted to highlight the positive stories of adoption that has brought so much joy to his own life. So many times he said films focus on the negatives and the stereotypes that exist in foster care and adoption and he wanted people to be able to share in the laughter and joy that so many foster and adoptive parents experience raising their children.
“Adopting my kids is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Anders said. “We’re seven years into it but we’ve got a long ways to go and challenges ahead. But this experience has been so enriching.”
The end of the film highlights ways that everyone can get involved in helping a child in foster care. The new website Instantfamily.org will serve as a resource and way people can find out more about foster care and adoption.
“Everyone can do something,” said Maxon, who has worked in the foster care and adoption field for more than 30 years. “It’s a call to action to have the community step up in different ways.”
“Instant Family” releases in theaters November 16.
Kim Phagan-Hansel is the editor of Fostering Families Today and managing editor of The Chronicle of Social Change.