Review: Fighting with My Family earns a lightweight title belt

Fighting with My Family is based on the true story of professional wrestler Paige—née Saraya Bevis—tracking her path from a lower-class home in Norwich, England to the upper-class rope barrier of the glamorous WWE. She would become the youngest Divas Champion ever, and before that, the oldest to be excited about winning a trip to Orlando. After winning a try-out spot in her home country, she was recruited to a WWE-based Florida training camp, where her skills and dark, outcast persona helped her join the likes of Jake “The Snake” Roberts among those rare athletes who enter the pro-wrestling ring and you can also easily see having a pet lizard. But how exactly did that come to be? Well, here’s the story. Sort of.

It’s a classic if clichéd sports arc, but it works here largely because of the film’s family angle. Born into a home of self-admitted criminal fuck-ups, Saraya (Florence Pugh) is basically forced into the wrestling scene they’ve created as their only legitimate means of income. Her father (a mohawked, typically enjoyable Nick Frost) is a former drunk and former robber who, with his wife (the underappreciated Lena Headey), run the local amateur grappling group. Saraya and brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have been doing this since they were in neon-tassled Underoos, and that she gets reluctantly chosen over him for a chance at the Big Show (sorry, not Big Show the wrestler, who does cameo) leads to some obvious issues. And while the sports story may be the main thrust, it’s this hypothetical Roseanne (UK) mix of lower-class family comedy meets abruptly high drama that really pins this thing down.

From its opening production cards, the movie clues audiences in to it’s oddly successful mashup, putting up abutted logos for the UK’s Film4 and WWE Studios. The cards are basically totems for a couple of the film’s main behind-the-scenes—and, for a few minutes apiece, in-the-scenes—players, executive producer Dwayne Johnson and writer-director-EP Stephen Merchant. Both clearly relate to the story for different reasons, Johnson feeling the wrestling family tradition and Hollywood-level filmmaking; Mechant channeling his very British comedy and sensibilities. The collaboration doesn’t reach the heights of Merchant’s early successes with Ricky Gervais, but after his middling Hello Ladies, it makes a solid case for his continued work with stars larger in both celebrity and girth.

Merchant’s filmmaking has often been rote, styleless, or nail-on-the-head obvious, but here, his screenplay at least deserves credit for its tight mix of wit and heart. And while his visual vocabulary still leaves a lot to be desired (how has his workmanlike faux documentary produced more memorable images than a wrestling biopic?), he may have made his case for being “an actor’s director” here. His stars are all as brilliantly funny and painfully dramatic as his script demands. Even Vince Vaughn, playing a WWE coach-cum-drill-sergeant, shifts his loudmouth, wise-ass persona into something far more succinct and interesting than the usual of, say, when he already yammered at outsider sports 15 years ago in Dodgeball.

Quite real at a level, but with a lot of telegraphed moves, some obvious masterminding of arc-shaping, and some eye-rolling music cues, Fighting with My Family takes many unintentional suggestions from the sport at its center. And, just as wrestling doesn’t belong in the Olympics, this thing doesn’t belong in the Oscars. Yet, again following its inspiration: however much was deliberately staged, damned if this overlit little outing shouldn’t rightfully leave some audiences cheering.

Grade: B-

Fighting with My Family
Director: Stephen Merchant
Studio: MGM
Runtime: 108 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Lena Headey, Nick Frost

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