Fighting With My Family
I am a big pro-wrestling fan. There was a time not so very long ago that I would have been mildly embarrassed saying that, but the last few years have seen a sea change in the popularity and public consciousness of pro-wrestling, thanks to a veritable explosion of interest in and among smaller independent promotions, and the continuing juggernaut that is WWE, whose bigger stars are, once again, becoming household names; one of them, namely Dwayne Johnson, is the most bankable man in Hollywood right now.
Key to that growing resonance is the “women’s revolution” wherein female wrestlers have taken more and more of the spotlight in terms of actual wrestling, to the point of becoming main-eventers. Saraya-Jade Bevis, better known as Paige, was one of the women at the forefront of that movement within WWE, and this is WWE Studios’ attempt at telling that story, based in part on a 2012 documentary, with Stephen Merchant at the helm. That studio is synonymous with “direct-to-DVD” so this was a step-up: Was Fighting With My Family a suitable retelling of the Paige story, or more Shockmaster-level?
The Knight’s – ex-con father Patrick (Nick Frost), mother Julia (Lena Headey), dedicated Zak (Jack Lowden) and ambitious daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh) – are a family of pro-wrestlers, who run their own promotion and school in the otherwise drab surroundings of Norwich, England. When the WWE, through coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), come to town, the family is split: Saraya, soon going by “Paige”, gets a shot at the big time, while Zak deals with the heartbreak of rejection.
There have been documentaries about wrestling, there have been books. There was, of course, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. But this is finally the nice, easily digestible piece of media I have been looking for, the answer to the question “How do I show non-fans what wrestling is actually about?”. Fighting With My Family fulfills that purpose, while also being rather good in its own right.
As a veritable love-letter to the art that is pro-wrestling, it’s a hell of a ride. Every side of the process is explored in some way here: the wrestling schools employing teachers who have missed their big shot, teaching kids with dreams of glory; the local gym hall indies doing crazy things in front of tiny, but occasionally raucous crowds; the intense and sometimes destructive training process for those seeking the limelight; the hours, days, weeks and months spent on the road; the big time WWE shows, in front of tens of thousands. Fighting With My Family fits it all in, and has the perfect cipher for that journey, in the form of Pugh’s Paige.
From wrestling her brother Zak as a child (he dressed as the Pink Power Ranger to make her more comfortable) to the day after Wrestlemania 30, where she announced the new breed of WWE women’s wrestlers with a spectacular bang, this is Saraya/Paige’s engaging story, as she wrestles (ha!) with the insane expectations and pressure, the physical and mental toll of her training and the reality that she isn’t even sure if its something she actually wants, at least not in the way she is getting it. Pugh imbues Paige with a hell of a lot of heart, giving us that “freak” girl who spends her whole life trying to justify her appearance and manner to the outside world.
Her time at NXT turns the film into a quasi-sports movie, replete with tough times, training montages, desires to quit and corners turned. Those familiar with both Paige’s career and NXT in this period will know this is essentially the most fictional part of proceedings (there’s no room for any Banks, Bayley, Flair or Lynch, no NXT Women’s Championship, and Paige’s fellow trainees are all in the “Divas” mold, albeit with more depth than they may first appear to have).
It’s hard and it’s cruel and any pretence of the WWE as a constant dream come true for its employees takes a substantial battering – intentionally – and Paige, conflicted about what she wants and in turmoil emotionally, is right at the heart of it, giving us a bird’s eye view of this oft-terrible process. Pugh is still at the outset of her career but, as I mentioned in my positive appraisal of her in last year’s Outlaw King, things are looking good for her, especially in terms of the range she is able to exhibit.
She’s ably contrasted with Lowden’s Zak whose plot-line is engrossing enough on its own, even if it is a bit formulaic. You can feel that twisted emotional trauma welling up inside him as he confronts the illogical but addictive anger towards Paige for “stealing” his dream, and having to figure out what worth there is in the rest of his life. There’s plenty of course, and Zak’s road to figuring that out, mirroring the real-life exploits of many wrestlers who failed to grab the limelight but became teachers to the next generation, is one Merchant pulls together well, helped by Lowden’s excellent performance, a follow-on from his equally good turns in this year’s Mary Queen Of Scots and my favourite film of 2017, Dunkirk. A nascent sub-plot of his wrestling school helping kids stay off the streets and away from a life of drug-dealing could easily have come off as overly-sentimental and trite, but rings true to someone like me, and the same can be said for the films’s depiction of him training a blind kid as a wrestler (mirroring the real-life story, Zak comes up with a system of stamps and other noises to call spots).
The veteran in the middle is Vaughn, and while he has had tougher roles, he still does the necessaries here, and does a damn sight better than his somnambulist showing in Dragged Across Concrete. A composite character based on several different WWE trainers (certainly a bit of Bill deMott and Al Snow in there, among others) he provides a means of looking at the not so great side of the WWE experience, of the journeymen who, sadly, exist in the industry just to make others look good, and might end up half-killing themselves in the process. Through him, I think the film fights back a little at claims that it is a puff piece for the WWE: Fighting With My Family is undoubtedly positive about the company bankrolling it, and it would be naive to imagine it could be anything else. But to say that gives the company and the art form a totally easy ride would be inaccurate also.
The supporting cast are having a lot fun here, and there are some significant actors involved, not least Lean Headey playing very much against the Game Of Thrones/300 type here as Paige’s punk-ish mother, or Nick Frost, whose comic skills are well employed (when asked what he was in prison for, his deadpan response is “Violence, mostly”). Johnson’s involvement is limited to two scenes, one of which formed the basis for the entire first trailer, but you can forgive WWE Studios for the desire to capitalise on his immense fame. And there’s Merchant as well of course, ably inserting himself into a scene where the dreaded “It’s all fake isn’t it?” is asked (the correct description is “scripted”).
Merchant proves himself a good choice for director, detached enough from WWE not to be too reverential, and never judgmental or patronising in his portrayal of the Knight family, and he has an eye for a dramatic depiction of wrestling. Some of his lines are hysterical, reflecting the absurd fish-out-of-water state of a Brit in Florida (one trainee happily informs Page her accent “sounds like a Nazi from a movie”). However, it is only fair to say that the film follows the Rocky formula fairly straight, right down to the placement of the inevitable montage sequence.
The film’s depiction of wrestling is a decent appraisal, showcasing the methods by which spots are called and matches choreographed, though by the end the lines between “kayfabe” and reality blur a little. It’s better at exploring the depth of sub-culture in wrestling, with nods to the idea of “receipts” (intentionally hurting someone who botches a move, as a teaching tool), putting more famous people “over” (by them beating you) and the way that presentation, mic skills and crowd reaction as are important, indeed more important, than actual skill at wrestling.
This film makes me remember why I love wrestling: the characters, the unique form of story-telling, the big moments, the behind-the-scenes smark insights. At a time when WWE mix the bad – the Saudi shows, Brock Lesnar’s continued employment, over-emphasis on the big guys – with the good – NXT generally, the women, Smackdown Live – Fighting With My Family is an example of the kind of underdog story they occasionally specialise in, mixing reality with the scripted, to form a wholly satisfying narrative about a future Hall of Famer. Merchant fills it with wit, warmth and engaging story beats, and Pugh does the rest with her magnetic heartfelt portrayal. Paige’s in-ring story may have come to an end since, but she, and the rest of us, will always have this excellent biopic. Strong recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).