Caring about professional wrestling is completely unnecessary to enjoy Fighting with My Family. It's not really even about professional wrestling. Although it takes place within that world, the film is more about the value of pursuing a dream, as well as the resentment that builds when someone else gets to live the dream you want for yourself. Writer/director Stephen Merchant (co-creator of The Office) adapts the true story of WWE superstar Paige with enough humor and humanity to keep you hooked, whatever your feelings on World Wrestling Entertainment.
Florence Pugh (The Commuter) plays Saraya Knight, a young British woman who comes from a wrestling family. Her parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey) perform at small venues and run a wrestling school. Brother Zak (Dunkirk's Jack Lowden) teaches local kids how to perform the moves. Both Saraya and Zak have dreams of joining the WWE, so they're excited when a videotape they send in to the company yields them an audition. She gets signed, he doesn't.
Saraya, who gives herself the stage name “Paige,” struggles from the start. All the other women are former models or cheerleaders, whereas she's got more of a Goth vibe going on. Her super-strict coach, Hutch (Vince Vaughn), pushes her harder than she thinks she can go. And despite his initial support, Zak lets his jealousy get the better of him, leading to tension between the siblings.
Fighting with My Family, as you can doubtlessly tell, has two parts. The scenes with Saraya trying to climb the ladder in the WWE work because of the star-making performance from Florence Pugh. The actress has an appealingly feisty quality onscreen that immediately earns our empathy. We root for Saraya to keep going, to forge her own identity when she doesn't fit in with the other female wrestlers. Pugh makes us understand why the character wants to succeed so badly and how insecurity continually threatens to hold her back.
The other part is the family drama. It's even better. Jack Lowden does effective, understated work capturing Zak's wounded pride – the way it tears him up inside to see his sister get the opportunity he's dreamed of all his life. Lowden and Pugh have some dynamite scenes together that show the manner in which the relationship between their characters is tested.
Unsurprisingly given Merchant's involvement, Fighting with My Family is often very funny. The two or three scenes involving Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who appears as himself, are particularly amusing. Frost and Headey also earn chuckles as Saraya's parents, while Vaughn puts a sardonic twist on the role of the demanding coach. Some subtle spoofing of the WWE's entire enterprise will generate laughs of recognition from fans and laughs of validation from those who find professional wrestling silly.
The movie's storytelling approach is pretty standard. It hits all the familiar Rocky-esque beats, including the music montage in which Saraya trains harder than she's ever trained before. Not much here is new or innovative. Is that a major flaw? No. If Fighting with My Family is formulaic, at least it executes the formula well.
With strong acting, witty dialogue, an observant portrayal of sibling dynamics, and a cool peek behind the scenes of the WWE's training program, the movie entertains and inspires without being manipulative. Like Paige, it's a winner.
out of four
Fighting with My Family is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.