You might not expect a wrestling movie to make you cry. But Fighting With My Family comes flying off the top rope, bursting with comedy and emotion, and clobbers you right in the feelings.
Based on a 2012 documentary about a wrestling-mad family, the new film directed by Steven Merchant recounts the real-life story of WWE champion Paige, born Saraya-Jade Bevis in Norwich, England. Already in the UK’s indie grappling circuit, she was spotted by the WWE and went all the way to US stardom.
Unfortunately, her even more grapple-mad brother was left behind.
That’s the dilemma at the heart of Fighting With My Family, which opens with Paige and her brother Zak Zodiac building a community around a love of wresting. But when Paige heads off to the US to join The Rock and friends in the big leagues of World Wrestling Entertainment, Zak is in danger of spiraling into small-town oblivion.
Premiering at the Sundance film festival, Fighting With My Family struts into the ring in the US on February 14, the UK on March 1 and Australia on March 21.
Co-produced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and the WWE’s filmmaking arm, Fighting With My Family plays like The Wrestler meets The Full Monty. Yes, it’s an underdog sports movie, but Fighting With My Family ducks the sports movie formula to become a heartfelt comedy about family and community, escape and redemption. It might be more accurately described as The Fighter meets Skins. In Norwich.
Florence Pugh has a very different look from her recent role in Netflix historical epic Outlaw King, donning emo gear to play the young Paige. Nick Frost proves himself a national treasure yet again as her wrestling impresario dad, bubbling with lovable pathos and wit. Game of Thrones star Lena Headey is Paige’s mother, herself a former wrestler, as both parents struggle between pushing their children and pushing them too far.
The standout turn is Jack Lowden as Paige’s brother. Lowden played Morrissey in a biopic of the singer, was the downed Spitfire pilot in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and appears in this year’s Mary Queen of Scots. He brings a muscular intensity to the driven but disappointed young fighter that suggests he’s one to watch if he ever opts to do an action movie.
Fighting With My Family writer and director Steven Merchant wrung all sorts of pathos from everyday life in The Office with frequent collaborator Ricky Gervais. Merchant adopts a similar strategy here, finding epic emotion in family life. It’s a smart move to spend as much time with the family left among the mustard and market stalls as with the rising star on her journey to the glitz and glamour of the WWE. Not only do we share the hilarious and bittersweet ups and downs of this irrepressible family, we also see the importance of sport to communities. This isn’t just a story of escape. It’s a story of building something right at home.
Kids who see no future for themselves can drift toward drugs and pointless violence. Sports can offer more than a ticket out. Working class obsessions like wrestling and heavy metal — Motorhead and Iron Maiden rock the soundtrack — improve life where they are, building community through activity, entertainment and purpose.
Hardcore WWE fans may be more interested in Paige’s journey to the top tier of US wrestling. She’s easy to root for as she competes with models and cheerleaders who aren’t there for their skills in the ring, while Vince Vaughan provides texture as a jaded coach with a devastating view of what it’s like to get within spitting distance of your dreams.
That US storyline doesn’t land with quite the same power. For dramatic purposes, Saraya is presented as constantly wrestling with doubt, which smooths out the real Paige’s sparky personality and drive. The film sometimes seems as unsure as Paige does about why she’s putting herself through this.
The movie also improbably skips over her time in the US, barreling toward a climax so overblown it strains credulity. At the end of any sports movie, the real victory isn’t the cup, title or belt being contested. The real victory is won by the heroes over themselves. If overcoming their doubts, fears or flaws allows them to win the belt, great. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Rocky lost, yet there’s no doubt he was a winner. And this isn’t the story of people trying to become WWE champion, it’s the story of a family fighting the odds. Only a WWE exec would think the belt is the important bit.
The final match also glosses over the fact any victory in the WWE ring is won in a writer’s room, not on the mat. Bombastic Wrestlemania-style storytelling takes over in the film’s climax, and it’s a jarring departure from the personal and emotional story told up to that point. Still, the overblown finale doesn’t entirely undo the film’s charm, and it does give fans a hit of razzle-dazzle WWE Raw action.
Oh yeah, and the Rock is in it! Fighting With My Family harks back a few years — Paige debuted in the WWE in 2014 — with assorted wrestler cameos, most notably Johnson himself. Having conquered the box office since then, he clearly relishes reprising his wrestling persona, complete with signature bellowed put-downs.
A real-life story with all the drama of an epic sporting showdown, Fighting With My Family is an absolute knockout. The wrestling may be fake, but the emotion is real. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to be won over by a movie that puts your heart in a headlock.