The first major post-awards-season release is out of the block, can Stephen Merchant’s wrestling movie win over the crowd or will it be left sprawling on the canvas?
As a child of the ’90s, and as a white boy growing up in a council estate in the south-east of England, I remember being surrounded by wrestling. It was on Sunday afternoon TV (heavily watered down WWE highlights), it was in my school and it was in every pre-teen boy focussed magazine in WHSmith.
Despite that saturation, I had absolutely no interest in who was the champion at any one time, or who fought who on what show when. It simply passed me by, I had my interest piqued by Star Wars and Harry Potter; there just wasn’t room for another obsession.
Going into Fighting With My Family therefore, my interest was more in Stephen Merchant’s directing debut, and for Dwayne Johnson the actor rather than Dwayne Johnson the wrestling star.
The film tells the story of real-life WWE wrestler and former champion Paige – real name Saraya Bevis – on her rise up the ladder from amateur tag-team fights with her parents and brother Zac, to the main stage taking on the women’s champion for a shot at unimaginable glory. At its most basic, Fighting With My Family is your standard sports underdog movie – it’s even got Dodgeball‘s Vince Vaughan in it for heaven’s sake – but unless you haven’t been reading regularly, I’m a total sucker for a good sports underdog movie (for reference, check out my Creed II review).
I’m going to be straight-up here: I loved every last thing about this film. Even without knowing where Paige’s real story goes – as I truly didn’t – it was no major surprise where the film would end up, but as with all of these films it’s about the journey, not the destination.
It seems that director and writer Stephen Merchant agrees, and his take on the archetypal rags to riches tale is filled with heart and humour. His version of the Bevis family is refreshingly candid: Paige’s father and half-brother have each done jail time for violent offences, and there are some rather frank interactions about the family’s plan B for a livelihood should the wrestling not work out.
That lack of pretence works as an effective contrast against the staged (never fake, as the film reminds everyone throughout) nature of professional wrestling, and it creates a very helpful way into what can be a form of entertainment that can be inaccessible for a lot of people. A lot of credit for that is down to Merchant’s script, but it’s the performances that really shine in a film like this.
Nick Frost and Lena Heady threaten to steal every scene they’re in as Paige’s parents, but the real stand-out alongside Florence Pugh’s central role is Jack Lowden as Zac – Paige’s brother and WWE devotee. As the one with the most to lose from the start, Zac is arguably Fighting With My Family‘s emotional core and Lowden makes the absolute most of it, giving the film a heft and depth that might not normally be expected from a film that on paper is so formulaic. Lowden has already proven his talent on screen in Dunkirk and Mary Queen of Scots, and for me this just proves that he’s set to be a really big name in film in the near future.
The film does get a bit bogged down in montages and the more generic elements once the action heads Stateside, and at times I worried that the story would get lost in the training and tryouts for the big-time, but Florence Pugh’s take on the plucky “freak from Norwich” kept me invested going into the film’s final act.
For a film with the WWE’s fingerprints all over it, of course there’s no exploration of any dark underbelly, and the often brutal consequences of bouts gone wrong are for the most part glossed over; especially notable given how open the rest of the film feels about its characters and story otherwise.
There are moments in which characters describe career-ending injuries, and at times it feels like it’s building to some great climactic tragedy, but no such event never comes. Having looked up Paige’s career after seeing this film, it turns out that’s exactly what happened to her in reality; here though, it’s about the rise and rise – leave the fall for another time and keep the crowd happy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.
While it’s not set to be a film that will last as long in the memory as other films of its genre, what Fighting With My Family has achieved is something that other movies, TV, printed media and well-meaning friends failed to do: make me care about wrestling. In the madness, glamour and ridiculous costumes, Merchant’s writing and direction has found a heart at the centre of the whole enterprise, which shines brighter than any wrestler’s walk-on video ever could.