Fighting with My Family
Based on the true tale of WWE wrestler Paige and produced by The Rock, this big-hearted crowd-pleaser packs an emotional punch.
March 21, 2019
A word to the wise: should you find yourself watching wrestling with the Bevis family, don't go claiming that their favourite sport isn't real. While the in-ring entertainment is staged, its narratives are scripted and its rivalries areas fabricated as any soap opera, the difference between fixing matches and faking them is as hefty as The Rock's hulking biceps. The same sentiment rings true in Fighting with My Family, in a fashion. Playing producer as well as appearing as himself, Dwayne Johnson ushers this British tale onto the screen with a clear awareness of its tropes and cliches, which anyone who's ever seen a rousing sports drama or underdog movie will spot. But the former WWE pro also knows that a fantastic story can make a mark even when it's swinging every expected blow — and in terms of emotional impact, Fighting with My Family packs a mighty punch.
The driving force behind Norwich's World Association of Wrestling, the Bevis crew first came to broader attention in the 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family. It's easy to see why they've now inspired not just a TV doco, but a dramatised film that shares most of its predecessor's moniker. Patriarch Patrick Bevis (Nick Frost) turned to the spandex as a respite from a life of crime, then founded his own wrestling organisation with his wife Julia (Lena Headey). Better known as Rowdy Ricky Knight and Sweet Saraya in the ring, the two were soon bringing their kids in on the action, including a daughter named after Julia's stage persona. When the big leagues came calling for the younger generation in 2011, Saraya (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) couldn't get to their audition fast enough.
While the above details could've filled a movie by themselves, here they're just the starting point. The jump from scrapping around England's east to earning fame and fortune doesn't come without ample hard work — and many doubts. Training montages rumble across the screen, but so does plenty of contemplation, with Fighting with My Family never shying away from the difficulties of trying to make it in wrestling. Some members of the Bevis clan are forced to realise that dreams don't always come true. Some learn to stop living vicariously through others. Thrust out of her comfort zone and struggling with her sense of identity, Saraya discovers the challenges and costs of even trying to take the next step.
Indeed, Fighting with My Family might champion a broader focus in its title, but this is Saraya's show. Or Paige's, as she's been known to her adoring WWE fans since 2012. The film correctly notes that she took her new name from her favourite childhood TV show, Charmed, and it's that kind of earnestness that helps transform a straightforward tale into a resounding crowd-pleaser. Devotees and newcomers alike will know where the movie is going, however this feel-good comedy charts its path with genuine affection for its characters, their chosen pastime and the quirks of each. It immerses viewers in the wild, weird and wonderful world of wrestling, embraces the sport's theatricality and pageantry, and never serves up an ounce of judgement. As a result, the film deserves every laugh and fist pump that it inspires.
Of course, it's easy to go along with the movie's flow when there are such engaging figures at its centre. The picture's pitch-perfect tone feels like an extension of its central motley crew, who love everything about wrestling even when the sport is kicking their arses. Segueing from an initially reluctant fighter to one of the field's female superstars, Pugh puts in a powerhouse performance as Paige, switching the scheming steeliness of 2016's Lady MacBeth for a completely different type of fierceness and fortitude. Credit should also go Lowden, Frost and Headey's way, all playing multifaceted characters who could've devolved into caricatures in other hands. As the no-nonsense WWE scout with dominion over the family's hopes and dreams, Vince Vaughn similarly leaves an imprint among Fighting with My Family's impressive cast.
As for The Rock, he cameos as his usual likeable self — the kind of tough but tender guy viewers have basically welcomed into their families for decades now, and that the Bevis' mob incredulously yet excitedly welcomes into theirs. Like his former profession, his well-cultivated persona shares much in common with this flick: big-hearted, sturdy, sincere, relatable and relentlessly charming. Stylistically, the film earns comparable terms, with writer-director Stephen Merchant rarely dazzling with his visuals, but crafting a delight of a movie nevertheless. And yes, it's the same Merchant who's best known for palling around on-screen and off with Ricky Gervais. Devoid of snark or awkwardness, the sweat, stress, tears and cheers of this wrestling comedy suit him nicely.