Doing Good for the Sake of Good in ‘Instant Family’

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–By Sam Hendrian–

“Ellie, people who take foster kids are really special. The kind of people who volunteer when it’s not even a holiday. We don’t even volunteer on a holiday!” These hilarious words said by Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) to Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) in 2018’s Instant Family summarize the film’s richly-relevant thematic core. Can noble deeds only be performed by noble people? And if there are any selfish motivations behind a good deed, should it not be done at all?

Pete and Ellie have been happily-married for several years and seem to be content without any kids. But when they hear an extended family member make a snide remark about them obviously never having children, they begin to realize how much they inwardly long to be parents. Already in their forties, they are hesitant about starting from ground zero baby-wise, so they investigate the foster care system.

Upon attending an adoption fair, Pete and Ellie are impressed by the wit and maturity of a foster teen named Lizzie, who happens to also have two younger siblings named Juan and Lita. They begin to consider adopting them, but they have their hesitations, one of which regards the kids’ Latino ethnicity. “Isn’t this like the whole ‘white savior’ thing?” Pete wonders to the two leaders of the local foster care program. One of the leaders dryly replies, “We appreciate cultural sensitivity, but we don’t have enough parents.”

Pete and Ellie’s concern that their desire to adopt Lizzie, Juan, and Lita comes from a white savior complex raises compelling questions about the nature of virtue. Can it only thrive if it is rooted 100-percent in altruism? If one of the reasons Pete and Ellie want to adopt kids is to make them feel good about themselves, should they necessarily back away?

At the end of the day, fallen humans can rarely if ever be purely altruistic, but if they just decided to stop doing good all together, the world would become an infinitely darker place. Lizzie, Juan, and Lita are in dire need of loving, responsible parents, and this need usurps the imperfect nature of Pete and Ellie’s  intentions. They begin a trial parenting period with the kids, and while it is not always easy, familial warmth outweighs the chaos.

When things do get chaotic though, Pete and Ellie briefly toy with the idea of just abruptly giving up on the kids and dropping them right back into the foster care system. They fantasize about the freedom they would have and how friends/family would shower them with sympathy for their failed familial experiment. However, they know that this would be cowardly, and they ultimately conclude that Lizzie, Juan, and Lita mean far more to them than their selfish desires.

Although imperfect, Pete and Ellie turn out to be immensely compassionate and responsible parents, and they would undoubtedly be ready to give their lives for Lizzie, Juan, and Lita. They have learned that acts of love must frequently and earnestly be performed no matter what selfish goals may linger behind them, for so many people are in desperate need of tender care, and they cannot necessarily wait for perfect intentions.

As we walk our own individual life journeys and strive to be virtuous people, sometimes it may seem that we are doing good not for the sake of good but rather for the self-satisfied feelings that come from it. While this may be true, this should never stop us from doing noble deeds anyway. God can transform even the smallest act of charity into something extraordinary, so however imperfect our love may be, we must trust that He will still change lives with it.

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.