Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Director: Stephen Merchant
Writer: Stephen Merchant
Cinema has seen some truly spectacular boxing movies over the years (Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, the list goes on), but not so much with pro wrestling (the only notable example that comes to mind for me is Aronofsky’s The Wrestler). I think this is reflective of a certain perception (some might call it snobbery) that views boxing as a more valid and prestigious sport whereas wrestling is dismissed as inauthentic and silly. While the latter certainly has its very passionate fanbase, I do think a lot of people look down on wrestling for what they see as fakery even though, as stressed in this new film, there is a marked difference between a sport being fixed and fake. Fighting with My Family follows GLOW, a criminally underrated Netflix show about female pro wrestling, in the recent tradition of media that have found more to the sport than what people typically dismiss. It tells the story of a young woman whose dream is to become a WWE champion and of the blood, toil, tears and sweat that got her there. It’s a comedy film and it’s really more about family than it is wrestling, but what stood out the most for me was the film’s utterly sincere and wholehearted regard for pro wrestling both in its demanding athleticism and its unabashed theatricality.
Based on a true story that became the basis of a similarly titled documentary in 2012, Fighting with My Family tells the story of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), a young girl from a wrestling family in Norwich who would go on to become Paige, a world-famous WWE champion. All her life, having been raised by her wrestling parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) and been taught to fight since as soon as she could walk, she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have only ever had one dream, to make it in the big leagues in the USA. Together as a family they run a local wrestling ring where they put on fights and train the local youth (including a blind boy) in the sport they all love so dearly. When the siblings are invited to London to audition for the WWE, it looks like the stars are aligning and the chance has come for them to realise their dreams together. Only that’s not quite how it works out. Hutch (Vince Vaughn), the talent scout and trainer they must impress, picks Paige (the stage name Saraya has picked after her favourite character on Charmed) to advance to the next stage, a wrestling boot camp in Florida, while her brother is sent home. All on her own in a foreign country, her quest for wrestling stardom pushes Paige to the very brink of her physical and emotional limits.
As far as Paige’s story goes, Fighting with My Family is a fairly typical sports film. From day one of her training she is presented to us as an outcast amongst her American peers. As well as being a working-class Brit, Paige favours a Gothic appearance complete with dyed black hair and facial piercings which clashes with the blonde, sun-tanned models and cheerleaders she gets paired with and her anxieties lead her to lash out against them. Not only is she inconsolably lonely, she is also burdened by the guilt she feels for having been chosen for this once in a lifetime opportunity over the brother whom she felt deserved it more as well as a pathological fear of blowing her shot and letting her loved ones down. The pressure she feels couldn’t be more unbearable, except she also has a harsh and unsympathetic trainer pushing her all the harder because he apparently sees something in her that she is unable to see in herself. The film walks a fine line between having Paige as enough of an underdog that we naturally root for her to succeed and having her be flawed enough that she needs to grow up before she can win her climatic triumph. Part of what makes her an outcast, for example, is her derision for her fellow trainees whom she doesn’t see as real wrestlers, a bias that she overcomes by the end of the film when she eventually befriends the women and realises that she has as much to learn from them as they do from her.
The movie isn’t just about Paige overcoming the obstacles and winning, it’s also about her search for identity, which is the part of the story that I found to be the most lacking in development and substance. This is connected to the aspect of wrestling that many often find to be off-putting, the soap-opera-like performance of it all. The idea, as this film puts it, is to create a character with something personal and unique to say and to use the ring as a platform to tell their stories. Paige, for whom wrestling has always been a family affair, has to decide once and for all who she really is beyond that context and what it is she wants to say for herself. Pugh is certainly to be commended for the grit, humour and determinism she brings to the role, but for a film that places so much weight on the need for Paige to build a persona that is hers and hers alone, that aspect of her journey doesn’t get the focus it demands, leading to a payoff that feels more clichéd than earned. It’s my understanding that the real-life Paige was a truly groundbreaking figure in pro wrestling, a woman who lived and breathed wrestling in a world where female competitors seldom came from a wrestling background. I hoped the film would depict a more personality-driven story that delved more into how Saraya actually became Paige, but the films instead leans more on the physical challenge she faces, just like the countless sports movies that came before.
Still, as I said before, this isn’t really a movie about wrestling, it’s actually about family. The moments when Paige is with her parents and brother are when the film is at its most enjoyable and touching. The film dedicates a surprising amount of time and nuance towards the parallel struggle of Zak, who is made to reckon with the cruel revelation that he is simply not good enough to make his greatest dream a reality. Sports films are often so ready to celebrate the hero’s victories that many of them tend not to dwell too much on their failures and what it really means when you’re not a main character destined for glory. Zak is so crushed by the harshness of his rejection, the loss of his drive and ambition and the sense of unfairness clouding it all that he finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into a dark pit of resentment and thwarted dreams that threatens to consume him. Offering a lighter touch are Frost and Headey playing as the parents, essentially a pair of overgrown children who love what they do, are always up for a laugh, but who are ready to offer a helping hand and words of profane wisdom when it’s needed. The film also features an extended cameo by Dwayne Johnson, who is always a delight even when his appearance feels inescapably gimmicky. Like its main character, Fighting with My Family is flawed and a little rough around the edges, but it’s also funny, charming, and a pretty good time when all is said and done.