Fighting With My Family (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Florence Pugh gives a wonderful performance here.
Fans of WWE and of Paige will have lots to smile about and appreciate in this kind-hearted, engaging sports underdog story.
A terrific ensemble of actors, skillfully directed by Stephen Merchant, makes this really fun and undeniably entertaining.
Those who watch and follow WWE are going to have A LOT of issues with how Paige’s story is rewritten, presented, and lionized for the big screen. So many things are inaccurate here, it almost fails as a biopic.
Merchant, working with WWE Studios, blurs the line between reality and fiction to the point where people who understand professional wrestling is pre-determined are still going to have questions about how key plot points are depicted on screen.
I suppose if you detest the WWE, sports entertainment, professional wrestling, etc. you aren’t watching this movie anyway. That’s a shame though. You’re going to miss a rather charming movie that sends you home happy.
Saraya-Jade Bevis’ journey from teenage professional wrestler with her parents’ fledgling, independent wrestling organization, to that of a headlining WWE Divas Champion at the age of 21, is a wonderful Rocky-inspired story that plays out exceedingly well in Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family. Starring Florence Pugh in the leading role, Merchant’s film is a funny, heartwarming, albeit predictable underdog story that sees the young athlete rise above her surroundings and reach the pinnacle of her profession.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson serves as a co-producer of the film, and has an extended cameo in the film, but was inspired to make Fighting with My Family after watching a 2012 documentary on the Bevis family. They are the creators of the World Association of Wrestling (WAW), and its corollary wrestling school, running frequent wrestling shows in the United Kingdom since 1994. Saraya, originally under the ring name Brittani, would make her debut at age 13.
That’s right. Thirteen. I mean, it is the family business I suppose.
Merchant, who also wrote the screenplay, quickly pivots to telling Saraya’s story around the age of 18. Wrestling has become her life. And in addition to the homemade, cardboard championship titles which adorn her room, and posters of WWE’s biggest stars on the walls, she, as Brittani, and older brother Zak, a/k/a Zak Zodiak (Jack Lowden), wrestle in weekly matches against the menacing Saraya & Ricky Knight (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) – who also just happen to be Zak and Saraya’s real-life parents behind-the-scenes.
The dream for Zak and Saraya is to leave the tiny wrestling school and small crowds behind and work in World Wrestling Entertainment (“WWE”). And inexplicably, one night the dream becomes closer to reality when the phone rings. Improbably, WWE is in town and extends an invitation for an in-ring tryout the next day to the siblings, prior to a television taping of the company’s SmackDown program.
Much of the film’s charm comes from Saraya’s eccentric family. Ricky has done some time in the past, and is trying to leave a criminal history behind him. The couple’s oldest son is currently in prison. For Zak, WWE cannot be a missed opportunity. With his girlfriend expecting, this call could not have come at a better time.
When Saraya is the only one who receives an invitation to travel to Florida and train with former wrestler Hutch (Vince Vaughn) in a WWE developmental circuit known as NXT, Zak is heartbroken. Merchant does a nice job of exploring the chasm which can develop around opportunities earned or given, and those which are lost. When the film delves into these more dramatic moments, Fighting with My Family is surprisingly effective.
With her dyed black hair, lip ring and piercings, and non-model like physique, Saraya presents as something way different than the endless line-up of models, fitness trainers, and athletes who have also earned a similar tryout opportunity.
Fighting with My Family embraces all the sports underdog tropes possible, but Pugh is terrific in crafting a performance that moves between a combined sense of guilt for her brother and a confidence that her time spent with the family’s company is going to allow her to cruise through NXT and make it to the main roster.
The young actress, who first turned heads in 2016’s Lady Macbeth, exhibits a nice sense of vulnerability and her performance is quite wonderful. To non-WWE fans, her story will appear perhaps anodyne and safe.
However, to those in the know about Saraya’s journey in becoming her WWE persona, Paige, and her history with NXT and WWE, there are some rather egregious fabrications and falsehoods which devoted fans may find hard to ignore.
Then again, in a post-Bohemian Rhapsody world, I guess we can write these massive reinventions of history nowadays, with zero consequences whatsoever. Merchant (or did this come from WWE Studios?) changes lots and lots of details, many unnecessarily I might add, but somehow, despite all this fabrication, Fighting with My Family kind of wins you over and makes you smile ear-to-ear quite often.
Paige did debut on the WWE roster and win the Divas Championship on her first night on WWE television. Though handled clumsily in the film - how, in a predetermined world of wrestling does a character somehow not know she is winning the company’s biggest women’s championship until she actually wins the match? - the payoff is nonetheless a rousing one on screen, Pugh’s excitement a nice punctuation to the film’s message overall.
In reality, Paige’s career in the ring, as of the fall of 2017, ended prematurely due to persistent neck injuries. Forced to retire at 26, she also endured some notorious scandals which preceded that retirement, hurtling her into severe depression and rumors of suicidal ideation.
Thankfully, happily, Paige seems to be living her best life right now. And in the confines of a fun, engaging movie, Fighting with My Family delivers a lot of humor, heart, terrific performances and an admirable grit that makes it well worth the time spent from the opening bell to the very last.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, James Burrows, Thea Trinidad, Kim Matula, Aqueela Zoll, Ellie Gonsalves, Stephen Merchant, Julia Davis.
Director: Stephen Merchant
Written by: Stephen Merchant
Release Date: February 14, 2019