Sitting down to watch Fighting with my Family, I was concerned. Outside of Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, professional wrestling on the big screen does not have the most illustrious history. Often the butt of the joke, treated as a silly sideshow, or dismissed as fake. Thankfully, my anxiety was unfounded, as this film managed to hit the required tone perfectly.
Fighting with my Family follows Raya Knight (aka Paige), the daughter of wrestling promoter Ricky Knight and wrestler Julia “Sweet Saraya” Knight, as well as her two brothers, Zak and (incarcerated for much of the film) Roy who are all involved in wrestling with Ricky’s WAW promotion in Norwich. When Raya and Zak get a call to go to a WWE try-out, it should have been the culmination of their shared childhood dream, however when Raya is picked to go to WWE and Zak is not they both have to come to terms with their new situations, Zak at home with the family trying to avoid the same fate as his brother, and Raya in Florida with NXT discovering chasing her dream is harder than she imagined.
I don’t know if Stephen Merchant was a wrestling fan before coming on board to Fighting with my Family, but he’s managed to create something that is appealing to wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike. The script is very sharp, with strong, relatable characters dealing with problems despite the unusual realm in which the story plays out. For example, Ricky could have come across as a one dimensional, overbearing father. The dialogue Nick Frost is given really strikes a fantastic balance between loving and stern from the Knight patriarch. Merchant has crafted characters with a deft, and thought provoking touch that avoids many of the clichés and obvious tropes you might expect from the well-trodden tale of an underdog fighting for their dreams.
Despite thrusting the audience into a world that may feel unfamiliar to some, for wrestling fans there is enough authenticity, and nothing feels alien to the uninitiated. Of course, the involvement of WWE helps make things feel more authentic, but it’s away from that world, back in Norwich where Merchant does his best work. I’ve been to plenty of independent wrestling shows, and the atmosphere created in the scenes in the local working mens club feels very legitimate.
Of course, a film about a family of wrestlers was always going to have some big performances and Fighting with my Family doesn't disappoint on that front. While Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may be front and centre on the marketing materials for this film, he is more of a cameo than anything; so much of the film is on the shoulders of Florence Pugh, who is excellent as Paige. Pugh does incredibly well to imbue her character with a combination of ultra-confidence and crippling self-doubt, while also nailing all of the mannerisms of her real life counterpart.
Jack Lowden is also superb as Zak, having to deal with missing out on his dream and trying desperately not to slip into a murky world of violence. It probably won’t be the most talked about performance in the film, but there is a great deal of subtlety to what Lowden does with the character. Vince Vaughn does well in the traditional coach role, basically playing an amalgamation of Mick Foley, Vince McMahon, Triple H and Jason Albert in the trainer role, but it is a necessary role that Vaughn does in a particularly understated manner.
However, the stars of the show are Nick Frost and Lena Headey as Ricky Knight and Sweet Saraya. Frost is on career form as Knight with comic timing and delivery that absolutely makes the film tick. He does have some of the best lines, but they’re only the best lines because of the way he delivers them. Headey is almost unrecognisable from her role in Game of Thrones, but it works so well and you really do buy her and Knight as the ageing wrestling couple, trying to balance the needs of their family with the needs of their business.
There is a great tradition of heart-warming British comedy dramas that demonstrate the great underdog story of the working class hero rising up to grasp the brass ring of success. The Full Monty or Brassed Off comes to mind, for example. There are definitely echoes of the tone of that sort of film here and while I’m sure some will complain that it’s not quite true to life (for example Paige’s role in NXT, and the way she rose to the main roster was more significant than perhaps the way it was presented) and the ending is both convenient and even a bit cheesy, it works. The use of dramatic license makes this a better story, and by the time the ending comes around the emotional investment in these characters is impossible to ignore.
Essentially, this is a film that happens to be about wrestling, but it could just as easily have been ballet or breakdancing, such is the universal appeal and heart at the centre of the story. That said, this is very much a comedy and the jokes never feel forced or crowbarred in, they are all naturally woven into the dialogue which is something few writers can achieve so effectively, but Merchant has done with aplomb.
Fighting with my Family is touching, heart-warming, surprisingly real in places, and ultimately a very fun story of one woman reaching out and grasping her dreams. As the world we lives in gets darker and more depressing by the day and we could all use some escapism and Fighting with my Family manages to provide that in spates. If The Wrestler was the first great fictional film about, or concerning wrestling, this may well be the second. A must watch regardless of whether you’ve been a wrestling fan for years, or you’ve never seen a match, because at the end of the day this film is about the power of family and never giving up, and we could all do with a bit more of that in our lives.