I know very little about the sports-entertainment practice of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), outside of the movie stars it sometimes gives rise to, such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena, both of whom I truly enjoy as on-screen personalities. I know even less about the champion female wrestler known as Paige (real name: Saraya-Jade Bevis), whose fascinating life story is the subject of Fighting with My Family, the latest work from writer/director Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the UK version of “The Office” and “Extras”). The movie is revelatory, if for no other reason than it reminds us that we don’t have to have a knowledge or even interest in a film’s subject matter to find it wildly entertaining, in part because of the universality of its themes about the pressures that even the most loving family can place on us.
Saraya (played by the perfectly surly Florence Pugh) grew up in a family of wrestlers in Norwich, UK. Her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) was always the one everyone assumed would go on to bigger and better things, such as working his way up through the ranks and getting a shot at auditioning for the WWE. Which is exactly what happened…sort of. Parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) are the typical rough-around-the-edges, working-class types, who are utterly lovable but also always on the look-out for a way to promote their own matches in small venues around the area.
After years of sending in audition tapes to the WWE, both Saraya and Zak get called in by WWE trainer Hutch (Vince Vaughn, in a beautifully subdued take, considering the genre) to be part of a tryout regime for several UK wrestlers. When only Saraya is selected from the entire group, Zak is stunned, and she almost refuses the chance unless her brother is a part of it. Ultimately, Zak convinces her to take accept the offer, but it opens up a chasm for the first time in their lives between them, one that takes some time to heal.
Part of the reason Saraya stands out both in tryouts and later in the ring is that she is a short, raven-haired Goth girl who was actually trained as a professional wrestler. At the time, many of the WWE’s female performers were tall, blonde, bikini ready women who came out of modeling, dancing or some other profession where looks and personality meant more than athleticism. Although Paige clearly feels out of place in the Florida training camp and even believes she’s being bullied, there comes a moment when she realizes that her standoffish behavior might have actually made her the unintentional bully.
A big part of the film is about the renamed Paige being put through the paces of the training camp by Hutch and his team, while other girls drop out around her. She soon realizes that the operation her parents run did not prepare her for certain aspects of the WWE, where winning over the crowd with an aggressive personality means more than actually winning the match. But the film always brings Paige back home. On one break from training, she heads back to the UK where her parents have booked her in an exhibition match with her brother. Tickets have sold out so she can’t say no, but more importantly, her brother is so pissed off enough at having his dreams snatched away from him by his little sister that he doesn’t pull any punches during the bout.
Frost and Headey may be putting on the faces of doltish, somewhat clueless parents, but their skills as actors inject some much-needed charm and wit into their performances. Lowden’s Zak gets almost as much of an arc as Paige does, and that makes a massive difference in the emotional weight of the entire film. One of the many obstacles that Paige overcomes is the guilt she feels for her brother’s situation, as he and his girlfriend find out they are going to have a child, much to the delight of his parents and the shock of hers (played by Merchant and Julia Davis).
Not surprisingly, also on hand in Fighting with My Family is the film’s producer and person who thought Paige’s story might make for a good film, Dwayne Johnson, who drops into Paige’s life at a couple key moments during the rise to her first big match. He gives bits of advice, but his real purpose is to remind Paige—from one person who came out of a wrestling family to another—that the key to success is to be herself and not another version of one of her heroes.
Merchant has done an impressive job crafting Paige’s story (with very few changes, it’s worth mentioning) into one whose appeal should delight both the detail-oriented wrestling enthusiast and those of us who simply appreciate a good underdog sports movie. Fighting with My Family is funny without being silly or ridiculous, dramatic without being heavy handed, and heartfelt in unexpected ways. Pugh carries the emotional burden of the film and, using her already proven abilities as a dramatic actor, pulls it off flawlessly. Above all else, the film is surprising and appealing at every level, and if you think this is a story you wouldn’t care about in a million years, then it’s especially built for you.
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