Raucous Fighting with My Family an Inspirational Entertainment Body Slam
Inspired by a true story, the MGM / WWE co-production Fighting with My Family is a real-life Rocky set in the razzle-dazzle world of professional wrestling and revolves around a working class British family who all love the larger-than-life spectacle and violent pageantry of the sport with every beat of their collective heart. It is the journey of the clan’s youngest child, 18-year-old Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), a teenager given the opportunity of a lifetime when she is selected to go to Florida and train with other wrestling hopefuls, all of whom dream of being the next star of the WWE pay-per-view stage and become the next Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or John Cena.
Written and directed by idiosyncratic actor and filmmaker Stephen Merchant (Cemetery Junction), I can’t say the movie follows an original path. There’s never any doubt where things are headed, not so much because the real woman at the center of things became a bona fide WWE superstar but more because the storytelling is oddly perfunctory as far as her coming of age saga is concerned. But there is a layer of unforced sensitivity to this film that is enchantingly sublime, Merchant bringing a level of lived-in authenticity that’s wonderful. He allows Saraya and her family to become living, breathing human beings, the relationship between the young woman and her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden), himself a WWE fanatic with Smackdown main event dreams, borderline flawless.
I think the reason this all works as well as it does is because Merchant understands that the Knight family dynamics have to be genuine otherwise nothing that happens in the movie would mean anything substantive. As such, he adds a grizzled, somewhat uncomfortable and uniquely British working class varnish to the story that’s reminiscent of the films of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. He grounds parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) in that milieu with unctuous ease, their parental smothering of both Saraya and Zak coming as much from a place of selfless love as it also is a primal need to pass on their voluminous love for wrestling to their remaining two children.
Yet it’s even more complicated than that. The pair’s oldest child is in prison for a series of violent outbursts that ended up harming others after he went for a WWE tryout only to be turned down. They’re also having trouble paying the bills, their wrestling business not exactly raking it in as far as ticket sales are concerned. Then there is Zak announcing his longtime girlfriend Courtney’s (Hannah Rae) pregnancy, and while the two of them are ecstatic there is also the collective realization that the arrival of a newborn will add additional pressures none of the Knights are currently prepared to deal with.
Because all of this is happening in the background the cursory nature of Saraya’s training in Florida isn’t as bothersome as it otherwise might have been. Rebranding herself with the stage name “Paige,” the young woman battles all the expected obstacles including not fitting in with the other, more stereotypically model-esque female contenders as well as butting heads with her iron-willed coach and head trainer Hutch (Vince Vaughn). These portions of the film are unsurprising, things moving along in a manner just about anyone who’s seen even one inspirational sports melodrama in their lifetime could figure out within the opening ten minutes.
Yet they still work, mainly because Merchant has cast his film to perfection. While not given near as much room to emote or to evolve their characters as I might have personally liked, Kimberly Matula, Ellie Gonsalves and Aqueela Zoll are all still excellent as the three primary foils standing in the way of Saraya’s dreams. As for Vaughn, it’s easy to forget how terrific a dramatic actor he can be when he sets his mind to it. While most of his rapid-fire dialogue is reminiscent of his signature antics utilized in features like Swingers, Wedding Crashers or The Break-Up, he has a handful of close-to-the-vest emotional moments that genuinely caught me by surprise. On more than one occasion I was moved by what it was he was doing here, and whether it was a couple of his back-and-forths with Pugh or one solitary gut-punch of a conversation between he and Lowden over the phone, it’s safe to say Vaughn is doing some of his best work as far as this supporting performance is concerned.
But the heart and soul of the story is Pugh. She’s wonderful, and I loved just how open-hearted her performance as Saraya turned out to be. After making such a dark, unsettlingly magnetic impression with her bravura work in 2016’s Lady Macbeth and making the most of every second of her screen time as Scotsman Robert the Bruce’s British wife Elizabeth in last year’s Outlaw King, it’s refreshing to see the actress change gears with such apparent effortlessness. Pugh’s gritty determination masks an inner joy that’s endearingly palpable, and when Saraya’s shot to make a name for herself on an international stage is presented to her seemingly out of nowhere, the beguiling explosion of apprehensive glee that springs forth so suddenly in that moment is nothing short of magical.
Lowden is also very good, and I could watch Frost and Headey play their two characters for hours on end and never grow tired of either of them. There’s also a charming cameo from Dwayne Johnson as himself that’s undeniably adorable, a scene where he gets to give the budding wrestling starlet life-changing news (which apparently is relatively close to how it actually went down in real life) honestly kind of awesome. Merchant’s brief bit as Courtney’s straight-laced father is also pretty darn funny, his interactions with Frost and Headey causing me to uncontrollably giggle on more than one occasion.
Yet this remains Pugh’s showcase, and as great as many of the elements are, and as solid as the final bout between her and a defending world champion in front of a packed auditorium of countless thousands and millions of additional viewers all around the globe might be, watching this young actress strut her stuff so confidently is worth the price of a matinee ticket all on its lonesome. She’s the reason Fighting with My Family ends up working as well as it does, this triumphant piece of a pop inspirational sports hokum a royal rumble of enjoyment that had me pinned to my seat in happiness from the opening bell all the way to the climactic body slam.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)