MOVIE REVIEW: Fighting with My Family
FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY— 3 STARS
If you’re not a fan of professional wrestling for whatever reason, find one, especially an adult, and ask them why they love it. Prepare for the answer to become a show. Watch them light up and tell you a personal story of connection and experience. Listen to them describe a colorful, larger-than-life character. Observe them remember a jaw-dropping moment of athleticism right down to where they were and who they were with when they witnessed it. Hear them sound off with a catchphrase or two to finish.
Compare their zeal with other populations of fandom and you will see that it has evolved beyond kid’s stuff. They will sound a great deal like a Star Wars fan, a comic book lover, a water-cooler TV junkie who never misses an episode of their favorite show, or any other barstool sports nut jawing about their chosen game. Why? It’s because professional wrestling has made a connection with them. It is a wholly unique product that rolls sports and narrative into one experience. The new film Fighting with My Family drops the perfect gem of a “soap opera in spandex” and has characters describe themselves as “riddled with wrestling” like an addiction. The fitting melodrama is as ripped as the muscles being flexed.
LESSON #1: PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING IS A SPECIAL KIND OF ENTERTAINMENT — In the decades since hitting it big in the 1980s, professional wrestling, led by Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, has tapped into avenues of nearly universal appeal across demographics, geographic borders, and socioeconomic statuses. Putting on shows over 350 nights a year, it is the evolution of the traveling circus beyond freak labels, now with professional recruiting, training, corporate sponsorship, and purposeful production values.
Fighting with My Family borrows and mashes together two tried-and-true movie formulas to tell a very engaging true story of one of their superstars, Saraya-Jade Bevis, better known as Paige. On one end, it is the well-worn stardom dream archetype of a kid longing to become famous for the brand of glamour they grow up loving. On the other, it is a straight-up sports movie with big game feels. Both paths have their inherent cues, contrivances, and cliches, but they also have their high appeal and hearty feels. Like the athletic amalgam itself, the blend is fitting where the typical personal challenges of each formulaic journey mirror and amplify themselves perfectly when applied to professional wrestling.
Fast-rising English actress Florence Pugh (Outlaw King and Lady Macbeth) stars as the little sister of a wrestling family in Norwich, England. Saraya’s hard-playing parents Patrick and Julia, played with rakish relish by Nick Frost and Lena Headey, run a homegrown grassroots wrestling outfit traveling by van and performing in back rooms to riotous and loyal little crowds. Saraya and her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden of Dunkirk and Mary Queen of Scots) have been groomed in all aspects of the all-hands-on-deck family business from the training, recruitment, and marketing to the becoming top talents between the ropes.
LESSON #2: THE QUEST FOR PERSONAL PINNACLES — The achievement at the top of any dreamer’s ladder doesn’t matter. The energy of inspiration and desire is the same. So is the obsession, and so is the hard work and competition to get it. Across those that succeed and those that fail, every participant has their personal reasons and level of internal drive to strive towards belonging in or attaining that dream.
Saraya and Zak’s resume calls are answered when the siblings receive an invitation to audition for a WWE talent scout (Vince Vaughn, repeating a bit of his Hacksaw Ridge drill sergeant act) in London. After giving their best, only Saraya is invited to continue forward, crushing Zak on the cusp of becoming a new father. Taking a ring name matching Rose McGowan’s witch on Charmed and leaving her native country, Saraya signs with NXT, the WWE’s developmental wing based in Orlando, to train and compete against other prospective performers who are stronger, faster, and prettier than her. From here, the interwoven formulas of peaks and valleys take over.
LESSON #3: IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE MUSCLES — Diving more specific than Lesson #2, the intriguing part for neophytes to discover about becoming a successful professional wrestler lies in the intangibles necessary that go beyond looks. Vaughn’s character calls it “spark” and he’s dead right. Character is key and there is an art to pulling it off . The vibe comes out on the microphone with the promo work beyond the basic tough talk and the storytelling of the athleticism on display. One has to connect with the ever-fickle crowds by making their personas, words, and actions become real extensions of their true selves.
There’s a not a top-rope too high for Florence Pugh. She ably leads the family dynamics knocked around by physical prowess. Pugh connects like the real Paige did. Through her characterizations, the respect you gain for her story matches the respect you gain for the industry. If the objective of this biopic was to hook curious new fans, dazzle eyes, and get a few more butts in seats, then Fighting with My Family has done that with cheers.
Written and directed by comedy specialist Stephen Merchant, this movie has stadium-sized charm and spirit matching the subjects and their rambunctious chosen mission field. The laughs come easy with just the right dose of hero worship and brand advertisement. Produced in-house by WWE Studios with a Hollywood rub from executive producer Dwayne Johnson (rightly mugging for attention and playing himself as well), Fighting with My Family follows 2013’s The Call as another step forward for the billion-dollar giant in making more legitimate mainstream-level movies instead of straight-to-DVD side projects for its faces and heels.
While this film selectively streamlines and exaggerates the very recent (and readily comparable) true story of Paige, the essence is there. Fighting with My Family greatly succeeds in showcasing how good success stories like hers are everywhere on the WWE roster and woven into the history of its not-so-little-anymore cottage industry. The WWE has been doing little house label documentary pieces on their top stars for years, but they’re stepping into something bigger now. The company that makes scripted entertainment for television has found a new wellspring to dramatize their own cultural touchstones. They have matinee-worthy backstage biographies that would potentially put other athletic legends to shame.