Synopsis – A former wrestler and his family make a living performing at small venues around the country while his kids dream of joining World Wrestling Entertainment.
My Take – Heading into the special screening of this film, I was concerned about how this was going to turn out, mainly as it was produced under the WWE Studios banner, which churns out B grade action flicks in mass quantities every year (no offense to their fans), and whose last major theatrical release was Birth of the Dragon, the awful 2016 martial arts film which gave a fictional account on the supposedly true story revolving around a young Bruce Lee. Moreover outside of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky‘s 2018 drama, The Wrestler, and 2014s Foxcatcher, films centered on professional wrestling have usually gone unnoticed.
But, with Dwayne Johnson involved, who before becoming a bonafide star was one of the most popular professional wrestlers in the world, the film felt as it deserved a look due to its Indie feel. Something which Johnson has been referring in the film’s promotions as a return to roots for him. However, whatever the promotional material may have you think, he is not in a lead role here, in fact he is in a minor part, playing himself, both as Dwayne Johnson and his wrestling character The Rock.
Instead the film is based on a true story and a 2012 documentary, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, featuring the rise of Divas superstar Saraya “Paige” Bevis, and how she rose to WWE fame thanks to the support and obsession of her unconventional wrestling family. Turns out my fears were unwarranted, as the end result is not only the wrestling film fans have always wanted, but also one of the best underdog sports films ever made about a female athlete.
While the film on paper is nothing more than a routine underdog sports story, but with Stephen Merchant, the creator of UK version of The Office, who is also one of most genuinely funniest British comedians alive, at helm, marking his solo writing-directing debut, the film unexpectedly takes to a heavyweight status. In Merchant’s unlikely hands, this fact and fictional account of a working-class Norwich family obsessed with American pro wrestling turns into something sharp and very funny, uplifted by amiable performances all the while offering an interesting look behind the scenes of WWE.
The story follows Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), the daughter of a family so obsessed with wrestling that they stage their own matches, rolling around with each other in the ring. Running the small-time scrappy World Association of Wrestling (WAW) in Norwich in England, with her parents, Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), Saraya and her equally well trained older brother Zak (Jack Lowden), have only one goal in life, i.e. going pro in the WWE.
While the WAW is just eking by, Ricky is convinced that both Zak and Saraya are good enough to get into the big leagues and keeps sending videotapes of his kids to their American offices and leaves messages with Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), a no-nonsense WWE scout and trainer who’s always on the lookout for the next big thing.
His long standing efforts finally pay off when he’s informed that the siblings have made it to the try outs and requested to come down to London for a SmackDown taping. However, things take a drastic turn when only Saraya makes it to the next round that is NXT, which will take place in Florida, leaving Zak’s life’s aspiration shattered. Once she reaches Florida, Saraya finds that her Goth persona is at odds with the bubbly blondes she’s teamed with, and is also forced to take up a stage name, Paige, hence putting her into a state of self-doubt regarding her career choice. Meanwhile back in Norwich, Zak still sulking over not getting selected and finds himself struggling to be a part of his family’s amateur league.
This is the kind of story you’ve seen dozens of times before, but there are several elements that make this one stand out in a crowd. Mainly as at its core, the film is a quirky-family dramedy combined with an underdog-sports-star biopic, which is not something we see often in sports films and is practically non-existent in stories about wrestling. Director Merchant (who also appears in a bit part as Zak’s girlfriend’s clueless father) and his brand of humor bring big laughs to a story that could have felt like a parody, but instead he leads with his working class sports heroes: they’re blunt, proud, and hilariously inappropriate.
That’s a big part of what makes Saraya stand out in the ring, and it’s also what makes her so thrilling to watch on screen. Sure, the plot moves along a predictable path; you can probably guess from the first minutes exactly where this film is headed even if you’ve never heard of Paige. But it’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, something familiar and unfussy that’ll nevertheless leave you satisfied.
But the main reason it works is because it plays like a character study with some inherent stakes, like many of the better sports films out there. Given the title of the film, one of the bigger themes of the film is family, and the film doesn’t hold anything back, giving the audience the feeling that this is a family who not only loves pro wrestling but is also very close.
It goes far enough in having us understand what we need to know about the function of wrestling in the lives of these characters, but there’s more to enjoy in what we learn about them as people. It’s also smart enough to portray them as eccentric folk who don’t need excuses made for how they act. The film wants to celebrate this family for how their choices have kept them on the right path, regardless of how unconventional it may be. It adds up to a sweet-natured film about a rough and tumble experience.
Whether or not there’s a big game on the line, films like these are called “feel-good” films because you care about the athletes involved thanks to what we’ve seen in their personal journey and connections. For example, after Paige advances in her tryouts, the strain on the relationship she has with her brother is done very well. The devastation shown from Zak and the desire to persevere from Paige is one of the major elements that carries most of the film. It also helps to see a film taking on this story in such an entertaining manner.
While we even those who don’t watch prime time wrestling know that it’s mostly fake — or, as the characters here describe it as fixed. But director Merchant isn’t contemptuous of the spectacle as he portrays professional wrestling in a blockbuster fashion that has rarely been seen on the big screen. I’m not even a wrestling fan, but even I was impressed by how the film presents the massive scale of events like WrestleMania. The film puts you right in the ring alongside Paige, surrounded by 20,000 screaming fans. In a sequence that was actually shot in the span of an hour during a real WWE event with the support of the company, it truly sells the experience.
Of course, being a sports film, it leans on the usual tropes and clichés. There are training montages aplenty, mainly enforced by Vince Vaughn’s sarcastic scout/drill instructor, missteps for Paige to make along the way, and, since this is a true story, ultimately a triumphant climax. However, director Merchant mixes up the formula by also tracking Zak as he struggles with being left behind well. This may be a story about following your dreams, but it’s also about accepting that life isn’t over if you don’t. It’s these emotional arcs, not the plot specifics that drive the story. By the time it gets to the uplifting conclusion, you’ll probably notice the narrative doesn’t make a ton of sense, but you’ll also probably be too engrossed, overwhelmed with joy and happiness to care.
The performances also play a very important part in making this film so affable. Here, Florence Pugh literally who commands the screen. Best known for her subtly wicked turn in Lady Macbeth, here, Pugh had to give more of an overt film-star performance and she handles the task very well. Jack Lowden also gets a chance to shine as well, playing up the insecurities of being left at home, rather than chosen to be a star.
Nick Frost is on career form as Knight with comic timing and delivery that absolutely makes the film tick. He does have some of the best lines, but they’re only the best lines because of the way he delivers them. Lena Headey is clearly having fun with her grappling, faux-growling wrestler mom, and also does well by her role.
Vince Vaughn nails all the right beats to be funny as well as mentor like. Here, Vaughn elevates the pro forma character with his usual sarcastic line deliveries, and he and Pugh make for an entertainingly contentious onscreen pair. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remains likable as always and leaves a strong impact in his very small role. On the whole, ‘Fighting with My Family’ is a very likable film, that is not only hilarious but also very heart-warming and relentlessly charming.
Directed – Stephen Merchant
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 108 minutes