I watch wrestling maybe two or three times a year. I mostly do so because a lot of my clients LOVE wrestling, my best friend likes wrestling, and someone I know from high school is the Mandarin announcer for the WWE. So while I am familiar with the world of WWE, I am not steeped in the story of Paige’s rise to the top that is dramatized in FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Would that make it easier for me to enjoy it? Harder? And what would doing a bit of research do for my initial feelings towards the film?

Fighting with my Family: Rock Shout
Florence Pugh watches Dwayne Johnson ham it up in a scene from FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Image Courtesy of United Artists.

The Idea Behind FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) is the youngest member of a British family of wrestlers. Her parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) credit the sports entertainment with both saving their lives and bringing them as close as they are today. Zak (Jack Lowden), her brother,  works as his family’s number one trainer. He also wrestles as Zodiac Zak, the popular face of his family’s wrestling league. Following his rejection from the WWE, her oldest brother Roy went into a self-destructive tailspin. At the start of the film, he remains in prison for putting a man in a coma.

For her part, Saraya shares her family’s enthusiasm for wrestling but clearly views herself as behind her brother. He is the “real” wrestler, she’s just along for the ride. However, when the WWE selects her from tryouts but not Zak, she has to jet off to Florida. As she tries to prove herself in a foreign country where all her fellow women wrestlers lack experience but not model level good looks, Zak struggles to accept that he will never realize his dream.

Will she be able to look past her own insecurities before they ruin her big shot? Will her brother pull out of his spiral or will he follow in Roy’s footsteps? And how does the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and Hutch (Vince Vaughn) fit into all of this?

Fighting with my Family: Wannabees
Vince Vaughn (back to camera) lectures the wannabees in FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Image Courtesy of United Artists.

Writing FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

For a script from the mind behind the original THE OFFICE tv series, EXTRAS, and LIFE’S TOO SHORT, Stephen Merchant’s screenplay is surprisingly mild here. That is not to say it is not funny, it often is, but there is none of the darker deeper cutting humor we have come to expect from his work.

In general, the script is a fairly typical sweet “outcast achieves success and acceptance via sports” affair. Despite having some very colorful characters — in Saraya/Paige’s parents in particular — most of the jokes are fairly tame and predictable. Again, they definitely land, they just do so like a kiss rather than a punch, a surprise given the writer-director, the subject matter, and the characters.

The script suffers from split interests some as well. While Zak’s degeneration is more dramatically interesting, to me at least, than Saraya’s journey, cutting between the two serves to undermine both. Because the stakes seems so much higher in Zak’s world — jail, addiction, significant physical harm – than his sister’s, her story suffers in comparison. Because we know her story is the main one, however, we know his story can never truly dominate the narrative, so we cannot help but mark time every moment we are back with him.

The split also robs the Paige story of chances for dramatic heft. Her “rise” to Divas Champion feels very easy, ultimately. She went to Florida, did not fit in well, upset some people, nearly quit, returned with renewed commitment, everyone forgave her, she got her chance, she won. It is an underdog story that gives us almost none of the pop of the genre.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY: The Duo
Dwayne Johnson and Vince Vaughn share a fist bump in a scene from FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Image Courtesy of United Artists.

Casting The Lead of FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

Florence Pugh, an actor I have only seen on the small screen to date, proves very good in the starring role. Her Saraya/Paige may resemble the character’s self-image more than the real-life reality (more on that in a bit), but she nicely brings forth the excitement and fear of coming closer to achieving your and your family’s dream than you were actually believed you would. Additionally, the way she portrays the revelation that her dream does not have the purity she always assigned it — it turns out wrestling is all about money, sexual attractiveness, and drama, not just athletic ability — is simple but evocative.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY: The Fam
Lena Headey, Florence Pugh, and Nick Frost bond in a moment from FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Image Courtesy of United Artists.

Casting The Rest of the Callsheet

We got just enough of Nick Frost and Lena Headley as the patriarch and matriarch of the Knight wrestling family from a narrative standpoint. However, they have such excellent chemistry with one another, I did find myself wishing there was more of them on-screen. Their interactions feel lived in and real.

Jack Lowden does well finding the vein for Zak where we can see both how self-destructive he is and appreciate how lost he has become. His return to himself by the end of the film feels a little too tidy but that is more of a scripting issue than anything I would put on Lowden.

( have a soft spot in my heart for Vince Vaughn. I can therefore understand if me singling him out for praise feels suspect. Nonetheless, I must fearlessly dive in. He tamps down his motor mouth style without losing it entirely in a way that lets him nail the comedy without overwhelming the film’s fairly gentle tone. In his more dramatic moments, you can see why, briefly, Hollywood seemed to be lining up to guide him in that direction circa 1998. There is a lot of cliché in the part — which evidently is a composite of a few different WWE mentors — but he finds authenticity in the beats. As a fan, it was nice to see him find a new groove and make it work.

Fighting with My Family
Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh plot in a moment from FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. Image Courtesy of United Artists.

Directing FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

For a sports entertainment as dynamic as wrestling, the directing of FIGHTING is fairly staid. The camera always feels distant during the scenes of wrestling or training, both literally and figuratively. The movie rarely puts us in the ring in any emotional way. We can see all the action, we get no sense of the adrenaline involved.

Merchant is clearly more interested in relationships, not wrestling. You can feel that in the way FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY looks. It is a fine choice to be more invested in the humanity than the spectacle, but one often wishes he could have found a bit more of a balance. Even in a movie about relationships, it never hurts to get a little pop from the crowd every now and again.

Fighting with My Family: Real life page
The real-life Paige salutes the crowd. Image Courtesy of GQ.

The Accuracy of FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

I do not tend to care much about movies being 100 percent faithful to the real-life events that inspired them. And largely I do not here. Except often what is altered seems done to gild and glorify the WWE at the cost of storytelling.

For instance, Paige has stated that the women she trained with were cruel throughout the process, and they never reconciled. To connect to my criticisms above, showing us that would have really helped with her sense of uphill battle/underdog status. Instead, neuter the conflict with a kind of “we both didn’t understand each other” twist.

There is also the fact that the film attempts to present Paige as physically different from the other recruits. Her ringwear is modest, her body, the script stresses, not as aesthetically “perfect” as the other women. However, the movie also shows us the real-life Paige moments after she won the title and she is (a) shredded, (b) incredibly attractive, and (c) dressed in a very typical ringwear. FIGHTING passes over the above-mentioned authentic drama to instead go to this cliché because it makes the WWE look better.

Finally, and I know the film could not do anything about this, AJ Lee is not played by herself here. Why? Perhaps because she ended up exiled WWE when her husband CM Punk had a falling out with the federation?

It just feels weird to me that Lee plays such an important part in this movie. Meanwhile, in real life, the WWE won’t return her phone calls.

Fighting with my Family: Mic Check
Florence Pugh works the mic. Image Courtesy of United Artists.

That’s a Wrap!

As I said above FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is a very sweet movie with great performances top to bottom. You even have the Rock show up as himself to spray charisma all over the place! However, you can feel how tightly managed this movie is. The sharp corners have been shaved down and less savory elements cast out. A cast this good deserved a movie that was not scared to throw a few more elbows.

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