As one of the characters in Fighting With My Family proclaims that “wrestling is storytelling”, and there’s a grand difference between a fight that’s “fixed” and one that’s “fake”, it’s alarming how Stephen Merchant’s comedy-drama manages to win us over at every beat, even when we can predetermine the fixes he has planned for his story.
Drawing on a true story, Merchant’s charming tale centres around the Knight family, a low-end clan living in Norwich, England. Patriarch of the family “Rowdy Ricky” (Nick Frost), an ex-con (“mainly violence”), credits wrestling for saving his life, as does his outspoken wife Julia (Lena Headey) aka “Sweet Saraya”, who was homicidal and homeless before she met him; “Some people find religion but we found wrestling”.
Their children, Saraya (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden), are equally as obsessed, though it’s made clear that as youngsters it was Zak who initially adored the sport with Saraya finding her passion when she had to fill-in at an event. Despite her late blooming, Saraya is very much the star of the family, her effervescent personality offset by her Wednesday Addams-approved appearance, and it isn’t a surprise when WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) talent scout Hutch Morgan (an enjoyably back-to-form Vince Vaughn) chooses her out of a pool of wrestling star hopefuls when he visits the UK; Zak, passionate as he is, is sadly informed that the professional ring is not to be his destiny.
As much as the film caters to the fairytale mentality of the classic underdog story, Merchant’s script at least attempts to showcase the brutality of the sport and the lengths the performers will go to; one sequence sees a desperate Zak thrown onto a mat laced with drawing pins, whilst another has Ricky asking matter-of-factly to a fellow wrestler if he’s willing to be knocked considerably across the face or in the crotch with various hefty objects for the sake of a match. Similarly, Morgan’s bootcamp trials, whilst not entirely on-par with that of, say, R. Lee Ermey’s volatile drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, highlights his determination to find a performer with that extra special something, and Saraya – who rebrands herself as “Paige” (named after Rose McGowan’s character on the television program Charmed) – is more than put through the ringer in the process.
Her pasty skin, dark locks, and accent make her an instant stand-out in the Florida bootcamps (there’s a particularly amusing moment where her fellow female wrestler wannabes fawn over her British twang, making her read a seriously grisly news article just to bask in her inflection – “So sexy” one of them proclaims), but not for the right reasons as the buxom blondes, with their tanned skin and washboard stomachs, appear far more in tune with what WWE is known for. We’re unsurprised with the film’s detour of adversity, both for Paige’s prospects and for her family back home, but these type of optimistic features thrive in the dramatics, and thankfully Fighting With My Family doesn’t linger too long on the negative.
Whilst there’s an undeniable predictability that runs rampant throughout the film, Fighting With My Family‘s insistence on holding its audience in a chokehold for its duration without the intention of letting go is palpable, and it’s the captivating Pugh that stands as its most valued player. Effortlessly convincing in both an emotional and physical capacity, as well as endearingly self-deprecating in a manner similar to that of the real Paige (who has since retired from the profession), she’s the true heart and soul of Merchant’s joyous tale, honing a charm and a light that not even the industry’s biggest success story Dwayne Johnson (here appearing in an extended cameo as himself) can dim.