Movie Guide: Movies about Adoption and Foster Care

I love books about adoption. I find them to be a great way to talk about adoption with our daughter and people who are in her life. However, I’ve found that movies and media have the opportunity to reach a greater audience and educate them about the nuances of adoption even more. (I have been so thrilled with how This Is Us is handling transracial adoption and the conversations it has sparked with our friends and family. I’m always grateful to see an accurate, well-researched, portrayal of adoption in popular media!)

Not every film is an accurate depiction, and sometimes, movies perpetuate stereotypes about families built by adoption that are problematic. I’d like to share the movies I’ve personally viewed, what they’re about, and who they’re for. These opinions are solely mine and may differ from your own, but as a parent who adopted (and who adopted a child of another race), I’ve done my best to honestly explain the good and the bad!

If you still think you’d benefit from some books about adoption, check out this list of nine books for people of all ages!

The Fun Film: Instant Family

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Instant Family has become a popular film thanks to its star, Mark Wahlberg. What I like about this movie is that a husband and wife have an idea of how parenting will look when they decide to be foster parents, but the reality is more difficult than expected. Adoption and being a foster parent is a journey. Every story and scenario is different, and you can never be fully prepared. This is a good movie for those fostering or considering fosters to see the highs and lows of this, and many foster parents have told me this is the most realistic film they’ve seen about fostering in mainstream media. However, there are a lot of inadequacies and some uncomfortable situations. Despite that, it does have a (spoiler alert) happy ending and is based on a true story. Whatever you do, stay for the end credits and have tissues. Frankly, I do love this movie. It’s funny, helps you think more about adoption and foster care and helps people begin to have conversations that aren’t always easy to have. The actors are great, and I really think, though it’s of course not 100% realistic, there was great care to be authentic.

If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, I recently interviewed numerous parents who have or are fostering and adoption professionals about things you need to know before you become a foster parent.

The Documentary: Closure

Closure, also streaming on Amazon Prime, is the documentary I think that everyone needs to see. When I started to learn more about transracial adoption, Angela Tucker’s name repeatedly came up in my searches, and after adopting, I became an even more frequent reader at The Adopted Life. I am a white woman raising a black daughter, and I so appreciate Angela’s perspective and her willingness to be open when explaining her journey. In Closure, Angela discusses finding her biological family, not because she’s looking to replace her family members, but because she wants to find and learn more about herself. She is truly inspiring. Whether you’re a part of a transracial family or not, this documentary is one that I would say is required viewing and discusses critical nuances we all need to think about as part of the adoption community. I have recommended this often and still believe it is one of the most important current films about adoption today.

The Most Beautiful Movie That I’ve Ever Seen: Lion

In an adoption conversation with a friend a few years ago, she said, “You’ve seen Lion, right?” I hadn’t, and because I’m often out of the movie buzz loop, I had missed that this was also a highly acclaimed film, because when it came out, I was wrapping up a PhD and had a one-year-old! I rented it from the library, and my life was forever changed. Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his biological family accidentally in India when he was five years old and adopted by a couple in Australia. In his adult life, he went back to India and was reconnected with his family. I can not emphasize how truly inspiring, brave, and beautiful this movie is. It is so well-acted and discusses many unique things that occur in some international adoptions as well as the things that adopted children may carry with them into their adult life. Most importantly, it shows us the importance of a mother’s love and in this case, that of two mothers who would do anything for their son’s happiness. This is by far, my favorite movie adaptation of a true story about adoption. Have tissues with you when you watch it. It’s definitely a tear-jerker—but for all the right reasons.

Read the true story of Saroo Brierley here.

A Fun New Favorite: Shazam!

I’m a sucker for a superhero movie, Zachary Levi, and superheroes who are foster children. Billy is a kid who has been in multiple foster homes and moves into a house where a married couple, who also grew up in the system, have opened their home to foster children. Of course, Billy accidentally gets in way over his head after he becomes Shazam, and he isn’t only searching for his birth mother, but also adjusting to living with a new family while trying to rid the world of an evil supervillain. Without giving away too much, this movie does something so amazing that I haven’t heard discussed as much: the heroes in this movie are all foster children. In reality, foster children are some of the bravest kids that I’ve ever met, and I love that they can see themselves represented in this light. When I saw this in theaters, I was ready for a lighthearted summer movie—I wasn’t expecting a great story like this. Though this is a superhero movie and obviously isn’t entirely realistic, one foster parent explains how right on it is with the emotions of kids that are in foster care in this article. It is up to you whether you think this is a movie to show your own child, particularly if he or she has been in the foster care system or if he or she is adopted. After I viewed it, I felt it was something my daughter could handle (note that it does get a little scary at times—the bad guy is super evil), but this isn’t for every kid! Also, though I do really love this movie, I want to also stress once again that it could be triggering to those who have been in the foster system, have searched for a birth parent, etc.

The Nostalgic Movie and the Remake: Annie

Annie is a popular film for young and old. Though I grew up on the Annie from the 80s, it’s unlikely that kids today would relate as well to life in an orphanage, and for younger adopted children, this thought and notion could be quite scary to younger children who don’t know and may not be able to understand the historical perspective. However, the 2014 adaption of Annie is more accurate to today’s circumstances (and in this case, Annie is in foster care), though still incredibly unrealistic. I loved Annie growing up, but as an adult, the current film poses a few problems for me. I guess the number one issue for me is that if I was a child, I might not be able to separate reality, and I think for a child to hope that a rich man may come along and adopt them could be heartbreaking. This is still a classic that has some valuable life lessons and some great takeaways about family. If you haven’t seen it and have a child that’s been adopted in your home, be prepared to answer questions!

The Teen Film That Made Us All Think: Juno

When I first saw Juno, I was much younger and didn’t give it as much thought as I do now. Since adopting myself and speaking with birth mothers, this movie makes me think differently. It has been both praised for highlighting a birth mother’s perspective, while critics also think it takes something so serious too lightly. I, personally, think a lot of things are a little disheartening in this film; it does offer one thing, and that is that it highlights some things that a lot of us don’t think about: what might a teenager who is pregnant go through when she finds herself pregnant, how important counseling is, and in this case, I felt uncomfortable with Juno’s interactions with the prospective birth parents and wish the movie would have highlighted how critical having a third party help with these meetings, etcetera, are. I still think this movie has value, but I would suggest adults stick to viewing it.

The Blockbuster: The Blind Side

This 2006 movie is available for rent on iTunes and is frequently on cable channels as we near closer to the Super Bowl. The Blind Side is based on the true story of offensive lineman, Michael Oher, who was adopted by the Touhy family. While I do think this movie begins to touch on the unique nuances of transracial adoption, acceptance, and what it means to be a family, it does miss out on the opportunity to discuss this further. Ultimately, this is a movie for football fans. Though I do like it for what it is, I don’t often refer it to families who are seeking more information about transracial adoption. Though I’m likely to be criticized for this, in this instance, I much prefer the book to the movie.

If you’re interested in reading more about Michael Oher’s story (if you’re a fan of the film or just want to know more, I highly suggest it!), pick up The Blind Side by Michael Lewis.

The Cartoon for Kids: Despicable Me One and Two

I was a lot more hesitant to write about these two, but many people have asked me about it because they have adopted children and are concerned about showing them these films. First of all, let me preface with the fact that these are cartoons with a very unrealistic premise, so if your child is old enough to discern reality from fiction, I think that these won’t be too harmful, but there are quite a few things that are problematic with these films and how they handle foster care and adoption. I know I just said that they were cartoons and not real, but my hope is that one day, we will have more cartoons that represent our children and help them understand more about being adopted without it seeming so outlandish. In these films, three young girls are adopted by an evil villain who turns good, Gru. I think it’s important, as parents, that we do watch these movies before our kids do. There are a lot of things that could be triggering to children including the verbally abusive orphanage administrator to even how Gru speaks to the children. The one thing I do have to say in these movies’ favor is that if you’re at Universal Studios and you have a little one who is adopted and a fan of minions, they have a great ride called Minion Mayhem that is so heartwarming as the family comes together to celebrate the day that the girls were adopted.

For all of the films above, I recommend that you watch them before your children do if they’re your intended audience. I also recommend that you read more about the individuals in the movies that are based on true stories to ensure that you have accurate information. (Artistic licenses have been taken in many of these movies). But, if you only have time for one movie, I highly recommend Closure, because in my humble opinion, one’s lived experience is always something that gives us a lot to think about.

For more adoption themed movies (including everyone’s holiday favorite, Elf) click here!