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INSTANT FAMILY: This movie works!

If you plan to enjoy “Instant Family”—and I certainly recommend that you try—then you’ll have to accept some artificiality and manipulation.

Fortunately, the film’s important central issue, together with a solid cast, makes it easy to submit to the usual Hollywood histrionics.

That issue would be adoption—specifically, the difficulty teens have getting picked up by foster parents, along with the importance (and the hassle) of adopting siblings together, so that this key link in their lives is preserved at a treacherous time.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star in this engaging tale of a childless Caucasian couple who courageously but somewhat naively foster three Hispanic siblings: a small girl, a tween boy and a feisty fifteen-year-old. Each comes with his or her own issues—related to a troubled upbringing and a drug-abusing single mother who’s in jail.

Though I liked it a lot, “Instant Family” is one of those over-the-top melodramas whose plot is directed not by how people really act, but rather by a determination to milk every scene for maximum laughs, tears or squirming awkwardness.

Despite the frequent pain, panic, conflict and screaming, the film’s emotional emphasis tends to oversimplify things, and at times it comes perilously close to making too light of a scenario that has caused untold heartbreak. But it really is funny, and the leads have enough chemistry and warmth to enlist our sympathy even when these fledgling parents take some appallingly boneheaded approach to the latest crisis.

Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz are terrific as the younger siblings, while Isabela Moner (cinema's new "Dora") is simply excellent as the teen—alternately hurt, happy, angry, rebellious, loving and desperate. She also does a fine job singing the tune that runs over the film’s closing credits.

At times the movie manages to settle down and take its issues seriously—especially when Wahlberg and Byrne visit the successful foster family that originally inspired them to adopt. And it makes effective symbolic use of the couple’s profession—flipping old unwanted homes into something new and special.

Best of all, the powerhouse ending shows that despite its sometimes facile approach, the film really has staked out a place in our hearts. I heard a lot of sniffling in the theater, and after the lights came up, one woman behind us was so teary-eyed that she remained seated there, apparently paralyzed even as the ushers came in to clean up.

So yeah, the movie works; it works on your heart and on your soul, even as your brain sometimes wonders why it’s submitting to so much sentiment.

But let’s face it: If you don’t have at least a little desire for emotional manipulation, you probably shouldn’t be watching movies anyway.

“Instant Family,”

directed by Sean Anders

Run time: 119 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references

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