If the thought of a film about pro wrestling produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson inspires either caution or outright indifference, don’t write off Fighting With My Family just yet. Based on the real-life success story of professional wrestler Paige, and Max Fisher’s 2012 documentary of the same name, it focuses more on family dynamics than on actual wrestling. Written and directed by co-creator of The Office Stephen Merchant, the film revolves around the Knight family from Norwich, “the mustard capital of England”. They are bonded by a love of wrestling, but their strong family ties, specifically those between siblings Raya (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden), are strained when Raya is the only one selected by the WWE during London tryouts. She reluctantly leaves her older brother back home while she is whisked off to Florida to prove to coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn, in arguably his most enjoyable onscreen role since Swingers) that her unapologetically working-class sass and Charmed obsession don’t preclude her from becoming the reigning WWE Diva.
The story’s framework is at times very familiar but Merchant’s script and direction pack a joyful punch. It’s a coming-of-age film about belonging that fizzles with heartfelt energy and great one-liners. Florence Pugh is fantastic, proving that her perfectly executed turns in Carol Morley’s The Falling and William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth were no flukes. The role of Raya is constrained by some underdog tropes inherent to inspirational biopics, but she throws herself into the character and the physicality of her rebranded onstage alter-ego “Paige” so fully that any genre-based restrictions are quickly overcome. She has a strong supporting cast behind her, including the ever-reliable Nick Frost, who provides excellent support as Raya‘s bearded and heavily inked dad who left behind a life of crime to devote himself to his family and passion.
Above all, Merchant has adroitly balanced this story so that no one is left behind: WWE superfans will get a kick out of fun cameos and the use of real wrestling facilities in the US, while novices with lingering apprehensions regarding the “soap opera in spandex” will be treated to a strong contender for the title of 2019’s most uplifting film.
Fighting With My Family | Directed by Stephen Merchant (UK / US, 2019), with Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey. Starts May 2.
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