With every kind of sports movie, there’s an inevitable question that confronts it: “Will I like this even if I’m not a fan of ____?” Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family has the unenviable position of not only being a sports film, but also depicting professional wrestling — a sport that is derided as mere entertainment by some, and absolutely despised by plenty of others. (Even those who don’t particularly care might take issue with calling it a “sport”.) Nevertheless, the movie’s one unimpeachable success is that it lives or dies on its own merits, separate from any wrestling baggage. That’s not to say the whole work is a success, though.
Fighting with My Family begins with a literal fighting family. Saraya Bevis (an excellent Florence Pugh), who later goes by the name ‘Paige’ in the ring, is the youngest member of a family full of professional wrestlers. Her parents, played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey, run World Association of Wrestling, a tiny affair managed out of their home in Norwich, England. Saraya and her brother, “Zodiac” Zak (Jack Lowden), grow up glued to the TV set whenever professional wrestling is on, and as adolescents, they join their parents in goofily staged matches in front of puny (but adoring) crowds
When the chance to audition for the WWE arises, Saraya and Zak jump on it. The siblings show off their wrestling skills to an executive of sorts named Hutch Morgan (VInce Vaughn), along with a handful of other hopefuls after a WWE event in London, but Saraya is the only one to move on to the training program. From there, she has a small chance at becoming an official WWE wrestler, but most will fail.
The film is based on the real Saraya ‘Paige’ Bevis, who became the youngest champion of the WWE’s women’s league. Pugh, who gave a towering performance in 2016’s Lady Macbeth, is the heart and soul of Fighting with My Family, and the strongest actor among a solid cast. Though her jet black hair and her affinity for leather sometimes make her look more like a Hot Topic dilettante than a real social outcast, she’s admirably fierce and equally charming. More than once, Vaughn’s character says Saraya was picked over her brother and everyone else because she had a special spark missing in the others, and Pugh rises above the cast in a similarly fitting fashion.
Though no one else is afforded the ability to shine as she does, the rest of the cast still does admirable work. Frost and Headey are both funny as her unorthodox parents, and Lowden displays the fury appropriate of a brother who has lost out on the chance of a lifetime to his younger sister. Vaughn, those he’s saddled with a stinker of a line here and there, ably navigates the tricky space between inspirational speechifying and his more familiar comic persona. Writer-director Merchant even has a brief moment in the film, as the father of Zak’s fiancée. As the co-creator of the British version of The Office, he knows a thing or two about deadpan delivery and awkward silences, which he uses to great effect during his first dinner with the Bevises.
The film’s biggest failing is depicted on its (wildly misleading) poster, in which a clumsily photoshopped Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson shows off his mean mug with the rest of the Bevis clan. In reality, Johnson only has a few minutes in the film, with one scene early on and another toward the end. He plays himself, which turns out to be the lovable-but-quick-to-anger persona he’s used in every film he’s ever made. It’s a surprisingly brave — if foolhardy — performance, for it makes explicit what many already assumed: that he can only play a variation of himself. This cameo role retroactively threatens all of his past performances; one might be tempted to look back at the more successful movies he’s starred in just to see how they were manipulated to conform to his limited range, as well as his need to always play a decent fellow.
But Johnson’s unfortunate cameo is also a signifier of the real rot at the core of Fighting with My Family: its sanitization at the hands of the WWE, which produced the film. The wrestling giant has a vested interest in downplaying the fake parts of wrestling (though it’s technically required to be open about them for tax purposes), while focusing on the real pain and injuries wrestlers suffer. Saraya is shown having her head and back smashed against the ring floor repeatedly (the real-life Saraya’s career would be derailed due to repeated neck injuries), and we even see Zak being thrown down onto a pile of thumbtacks during a particularly gruesome match. Yet, much is also made of how the wrestlers are taught to pull their punches while still making fake blows look real. The two things can coexist to a certain degree, but the film wants to make professional wrestling look totally safe, yet also excruciatingly painful.
Fighting With My Family also isn’t sure what it wants to say about Saraya’s female colleagues. They are exclusively blonde and tan, as well as lacking in wrestling experience — failed dancers and models and cheerleaders hoping to make it big. Lest the WWE admit that its female wrestlers are mostly eye candy, there’s a clumsy reveal late in the film that’s intended to make us feel for and even admire the other ladies, despite having watched them bully Saraya all along the way. The scene has a perfunctory feel, almost as if a WWE executive forced Merchant to add it late in production.
This strange effort to rehabilitate the same women the film has previously slandered results in some unbelievable difficulties for Saraya. Despite having wrestled since she was a kid, she can’t keep up physically in training with the aforementioned models and cheerleaders. It’s laughable when the wisp-thin models are able to flip over huge tractor tires, but Saraya — who’s practically spent her whole life in a gym — can’t. Whether this is just a clumsy attempt to introduce conflict and raise stakes is unclear; it could just be another example of the WWE trying not to cast aspersions on its own wrestlers. Either way, it brings the film to a screeching halt.
Though Pugh and most of her castmates are excellent, they can’t overcome Merchant’s weak screenplay and anonymous direction. Fighting with My Family film ultimately feels like an infomercial for the WWE, one that only occasionally gets sidetracked by a compelling story.