I am the farthest thing from a wrestling fan, though I am quite solicitous toward Dwayne Johnson, alias The Rock. His stamp as producer is pushed deep into the fabric of this wrestling-centric film that rather echoes his own upbringing while capturing the true story (mostly) of a fellow WWE alum who made an immediately heart-stopping presence in the ring. Fighting with My Family may be simply that, led by a cast that cares about equally about the fighting, the heartbreak, and the victorious anticipation, on stage or off.
British-born comedy expert Stephen Merchant (Hello Ladies) returns to the feature directorial chair for this taut, grinning piece of biographical fare that can speak to the heart as it does the muscles. For the Knights, wrestling is in their blood, holding nightly “performances” of sorts in their Norwich gym. When they’re not rough-and-tumbling for a loyal crowd or training a ragtag group of misfits ranging in diversity, they’re often at each other’s throats playfully. But of course, daughter Saraya, later Paige (Florence Pugh) is setting her sights a bit higher.
Her perseverance and that of older bro Zak (Jack Lowden) pays off when their audition tapes culminate in an open tryout for the pro ranks of WWE. Only she is accepted for intense boot camp training in Orlando, led by the tough-as-brass Coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn), while he is left behind. From there, it’s a delicate cross-view of family dynamics being strained; she struggles to cope with a style of wrestling unfamiliar, not so much focused on athleticism as it would be stage presence when one considers her immediate peer group. Adaptation, even restructuring, are often required in such dire situation, but even that doesn’t always pan out as one would wish. Zak is trapped in the same hole, finding himself unable to adapt, but at the same time unwilling to face the same fate as their incarcerated older brother, particularly with he and steady girlfriend Courtney (Hannah Rae) expecting their first kid. They both are merely striving to set better examples for each other, and for their family. Even with a few conventional hiccups, it’s all on the thematic level.
Merchant’s profile as a director may leave little to the imagination, if one were to exclude his collaborative work with Ricky Gervais on The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short, along with his aforementioned solo series. It’s his second feature, after 2010’s Cemetery Junction, yet his first all alone, working off his own paunchy script that’s mostly adapted from a wild Channel 4 documentary centered more on the family unit, as a whole. He’s a capable leader, never one to be dramatic for too long, keeping the energy light and fully adherent to typical underdog sports movie formula. Of course, that sugary feel-good center would wear thin were it not for such strong casting honing Merchant’s focus.
I’m still incredibly floored by Miss Pugh’s committed performance, likely to shadow the real Paige in spots. Purely physical, joyful, and always locked into any given emotional cue on screen. Perhaps best known to American audiences for supporting roles in The Commuter and Outlaw King, Pugh’s bravado, showmanship, perhaps honesty, in the sense of a leading part kept me glued to my seat all throughout. One of the year’s first standout performances and one would be a fool to deny that tenacity she rightly exudes. Something she needs to keep support for her brother; Lowden (of Dunkirk fame) may often come off as a bit of a crying puppy while his direction’s lost, but who’s to say his stock won’t rise further for polishing his comedy chops? He’s comfortable enough in the part, as he should be.
Then there are the parents, Julia (Lena Headey) and Ricky (Nick Frost). Zero apologies to give, they know family comes first, and their chemistry is unashamedly beautiful, to the point where I could demand a spinoff film. And of course, Vaughn nearly shocked me. Considering most of his credits have hovered around more of the lighthearted comedy genre (fellow sport-centric Dodgeball remains his finest hour), seeing him in a more serious part would be the equivalent of seeing an alien from another world in those shoes. Needless to say, I was quite impressed, with the hope he can keep pushing for more of the serious.
As a sports film, despite its need to stick to the usual rhythms, emphasized greatly by the normal physical aches and pains of the canvas ring, it still feels very fresh but not gravitating above classic-quality material, which is OK. We don’t necessarily get too many wrestling films often, so leave it to WWE Studios for paving the way and making a still quite niche subgenre more open to the mainstream without keeping it confined to a streaming platform. If it were any other director or actors attached, I’d likely have a different opinion.
It does circle back to The Rock’s presence, again not just as producer, but as a shameless deliverer of two appropriately-placed cameos exactly when they’d benefit Saraya the most on her journey. His rise to fame still was a relevant mirror in the real Paige’s face; in return, he, and Merchant (who mercifully writes himself in as Courtney’s rather awkward dad, bless his heart widely), gave Pugh an opportunity to truly go above the standard. The results make for a film that deserves one’s attention sight unseen. She’s the effective heart pumping the raw fighting spirit that is Fighting with My Family, it only works so flawlessly through her, from head-locking start to victorious finish. And while it may not have been enough to make me an actual WWE fanatic, the novelty is far from lost. If anything, it’s further celebrated as such. It’s still cheesy, overly scripted and a bit fabricated; but fighters like Paige, whose upbringings bring true conditioning to an otherwise faux sporting spectacle, do make it, and this, worth watching, preferably with fellow fans who could help clue in on the details. (B+)
Fighting with My Family expands to wide release this weekend, opening in most area theaters; rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content; 108 minutes.