Quite a few years have passed since we last got a Hollywood tale about professional wrestling. As a matter of fact, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is the most recent example, and that earned academy award nominations. However, The Wrestler gave us a rather dark portrait of the sport, which left former WWE champion Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart claiming parents would rather have their children become porn stars as opposed to wrestlers after watching Aronofsky’s story. But thankfully, everybody’s favourite hero, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, brings us a much brighter, inspiring picture of his former profession with his production, Fighting with My Family.
Fighting with My Family is inspired by the channel four documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, and it tells the real-life story of Saraya Knight’s – better known as WWE superstar Paige – journey to accomplishing her dream of becoming a WWE superstar, and the struggles her family faced during this time.
The film begins with thirteen-year-old Paige (Florence Pugh) fighting with her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden), as she tries to change the channel to something non-WWE related. When their father Ricky (Nick Frost) walks in on his children fighting, instead of breaking up their fight, he shows Zak how to properly apply a headlock on his sister. He then convinces his thirteen-year-old daughter to wrestle due to them being short staffed.
Fast forward years later, Ricky’s children are now an integral part of the family business, with Paige promoting their shows by handing out flyers on the street, and Zak running their classes for wannabe wrestlers. And although they put all their effort into their own small company, the family’s ultimate goal is for both Paige and Zak to land a job with the WWE. When the opportunity finally comes knocking; only half of the Knight family’s dream becomes a reality. WWE trainer Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) selects Paige to be a part of the company’s developmental system, but Zak is left behind.
As intense as the film can be at times, it is balanced out by a large dose of comedy which leads to several laugh out loud moments. The humour is also a brilliant tool to suck in non-wrestling fans because even though writer/director Stephen Merchant treats wrestling with the utmost respect, he does not shy away from embracing the absurdities of the business. And this is evident in the hilarious scene where Ricky tests out different objects to use in a wrestling match. First, he smashes a trashcan lid against his wrestler’s face, followed up by a bowling ball to the privates. Scenes like this are not just amusing to all viewers, but it invites the non-wrestling fans in as they no longer feel like outsiders, because even the wrestling film acknowledges elements of Paige’s profession that can be a little silly.
The brother/sister dynamic is another strong part of Fighting with My Family, especially when watching the contrasting struggles of Paige and her brother Zak. While Paige battles with the reality of the opportunity she dreamed about for years, Zak struggles with accepting the fact he may never be able to accomplish his dream of making it in the big leagues. Their situations are not only relatable, but it’s made even more compelling by the shift in their relationship with one another.
Also, the film is full of fantastic performances. Dwayne Johnson’s unmatched charisma brings an extra spark to pivotal moments in the story. Nick Frost deserves an honourable mention for being the comedic relief, leaving you laughing even in the most emotional of scenes. However, the story revolves around Paige, and the show stealer is in none other than the actress who plays her, Florence Pugh.
Florence Pugh beautifully taps into the different sides of Paige. She’s tough, in your face at times, but at the drop of a dime, she can be overwhelmed with emotion. Most wrestling fans tend to forget Paige was only a teenager when she made her way to America to train with the WWE, and Florence does a brilliant job of reminding you that this girl is still a kid trying to discover who she is. Her facial expressions when Paige looks at the ex-models and cheerleaders in WWE’s developmental, shows us someone who is still unsure of herself.
Florence’s performance as Paige will satisfy diehard wrestling fans, who will also be happy with how the actual wrestling scenes look, as well as the overall presentation of their favourite sport. The film does highlight how difficult the life of a wrestler can be. However, unlike The Wrestler, it does not fixate on the negatives. Not only is Paige presented as a Rocky-like figure, but audiences also get to see the heart-warming side of wrestling. They see how it can be a community that brings people from all walks of life together, and how it can be a place where dreams become a reality.
The in-ring action is also intelligently used to keep the story flowing at a steady pace. Often it’s during a wrestling sequence where we’ll see time has passed because Paige will go from a thirteen-year-old to an eighteen-year-old, and it’ll show her progressing during her WWE training. The editing is crisp, so there is no dull or unnecessarily long scene.
Unfortunately, Fighting with My Family does have a tendency to be a little “Hollywood.” It is not always factually correct because Paige and Zak never met The Rock on the day of their WWE tryouts in London, and there are some noticeable changes made to Paige’s famous RAW debut. While it’s not uncommon for real-life stories to be tweaked for dramatic purposes, the changes in Fighting with My Family stick out like a sore thumb, especially for those that are familiar with the material.
There will also be times where those who are less knowledgeable of Paige’s profession, will find themselves wondering what a term or action means. Stephen Merchant has to be given credit for explaining a lot of wrestling terminology throughout the film, but you can only explain so much: this isn’t a documentary after all.
Overall, the good far outweighs the bad. Fighting with My Family is without a doubt the film wrestling fans have been waiting for, and it’s the film non-wrestling fans didn’t know they needed. Once the credits roll, people will be happy, surprised, even finding that lump in their throat after watching this tale of a girl who was never supposed to make it, but somehow dropkicks her way to the top of WWE.
Dir: Stephen Merchant
Scr: Stephen Merchant
Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Prd: Dwayne Johnson
DOP: Remi Adefarasin
Runtime: 108 minutes
Fighting with My Family hits UK cinemas on February 27th.