I kind-of-sort-of follow the WWE, and when I saw trailers for "Fighting With My Family" that prominently featured its executive producer Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson playing himself, I wasn't too thrilled (I guess he can sell tickets to anything). The movie, written and directed by Stephen Merchant, is based on the story of Saraya-Jade Bevis, a.k.a. Paige — a WWE wrestler who got her start in a British league with her mom, dad and brother. The whole thing's a bit of an ad for the WWE, but it turns out that the reviews aren't half bad:
Anyone Who Has Seen A True Story-Based Sports Film Can Follow Along (Plus, There's Already A Paige Documentary)
Based on the true story of WWE Champion Saraya "Paige" Bevis, the film is the improbable love child of writer-director Stephen Merchant, executive producer Dwayne Johnson, and critical darling Pugh, a combination so compellingly odd that even in its saggier moments one can't help but lean forward. It primarily follows the rise of Paige, starting with her humble beginnings training and performing alongside her mother Julia (Lena Headey), father Ricky (Nick Frost), and brother Zak (Jack Lowden) in their own family-run league.
Saraya and Zak can't help but want more; a real career in wrestling is their dream. But when a scout from the WWE invites the siblings to try out for its development program, only Saraya makes the cut, creating a rift in the family. Discouraged Zak stays home in Norwich, training the kids and feeling like a failure; Saraya in Miami, feeling judged by a crew of blonde model and cheerleader types in the program and getting her ass handed to her by their coach, Hutch (Vince Vaughn).
Paige's origin story has already gotten the documentary treatment, thanks to the 2012 feature "The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family," and audiences familiar with that film will appreciate the occasional retreads that enter into Merchant's film.
'Fighting With My Family' Has A Great Ensemble Cast…
Paige, or Raya to her family, is a woman of many layers – bold on the outside, vulnerable on the inside, and tough underneath that – and Florence Pugh ties them together seamlessly. Lena Headey and Nick Frost, meanwhile, seem to be having a blast as Raya's parents, Julia and Ricky Knight, dialing up the color and cheer without tipping over into caricature.
One of the film's funniest scenes is early on, when the Knights meet the parents of Kirsten (Aqueela Zoll), Zac's girlfriend. With Kirsten's dad played by the comparably demure Merchant, the Knight family are true bulls in a china shop of delicate upper-class niceties. To watch Merchant interact with them is especially funny, while highlighting how this family has their own language, and that they can't help but be themselves. Most of all, they're proud of where they've come from.
… But Florence Pugh Shines Brightest As Paige
Brits have long been dependably turning out funky little low-stakes dramedies like this one—but what they don't usually have is a star like Florence Pugh, who has quickly become one of the more intriguing actors of her generation. Purposeful but loose, charming but with a common-sense backbone, she makes you want to believe in Paige, cheering her on through one workout montage after another.
Paige is the sort of role that requires her to be vulnerable, tough, rebellious, funny, determined, drained, someone capable of executing a move called "The Paigeturner," everyone's little sister and the sort of larger-than-life performer that can command an arena. She lets you see where all of this springs from, and how it's all part of the same misfit.
The Rock Is, Well, The Rock, But Don't Expect Much Of Him
[It's] plenty of fun to watch the doors fly open for Paige, especially when the person opening them tends to be Dwayne Johnson (who plays himself in a supporting role).
I will say that for those looking for a lot of Dwayne Johnson, who plays himself, will have to look elsewhere. He's only in three scenes, and two of them are in the trailer.
There Are Points Where It Concerns Itself With Burnishing The WWE's Image Too Much
Fighting With My Family finds itself in the curious position of being based on actual events that didn't take place all that long ago, in a medium built on misdirecting the audience, within a company notoriously obsessed with micro-managing its own public image. If discussion of WWE feels like a sidebar from an assessment of the film itself, it's not; WWE's branding is so aggressively omnipresent over every aspect of the film that the company winds up situating itself as its own key character in the film.
Making no attempt to disguise its dual function as branded entertainment, Fighting With My Family is at its least likable when gushing over the WWE as a benevolent corporate entity, making dreams come true for the lucky few; a two-scene cameo by The Rock, playing himself as an endlessly patient and warm-hearted fairy godfather, is so worshipful that it threatens to undercut the star's massive charm.
Sure, it makes sense that Paige and her family would consider the WWE the pinnacle of their industry. But do they have to sound so much like an infomercial when they're talking about it?
It Also Follows Some Familiar Sports Movie Tropes, Which Can Sort Of Clash With Wrestling's Theatricality
If you know Paige's real-life, ragged-leotards-to-riches story, you know how this all plays out. Even if you don't, Fighting With My Family makes no bones about telegraphing where it's going and what kind of sports movie it is. There will be life lessons and setbacks and heel turns, especially when Zak's resentment over his sister's opportunity curdles into a personal downward spiral. Of course there are training montages, how could you even ask?
The movie goes so far as to make its pivotal match seem like a fight won purely by strength, even though The Rock himself shared during the Sundance Q&A that while Saraya's first big match (known at that point as Paige) did have the same winner, he did tell her the result the night before, which the script avoids. It's artifice in awkward denial of itself, and it cheapens the hard work of people like Paige, as much as we see her and her peers throw every part of themselves into this entertainment.
Still, Merchant Manages To Add Enough Personality To Keep The Film From Being A Rehash In Tights
Hiring Stephen Merchant, one-half of the braintrust behind the original U.K. edition of The Office and a writer-director with a droll wit, to tell Paige's story initially seems like an odd fit. But the skewed humor and warmth and scrappiness he brings to the family scenes, along with the fact that he doesn't treat pro wrestling like a hold-your-nose novelty, is enough to distinguish this from a million other started-at-the-bottom-now-we're-champs tales.
Merchant's insult comedy is on full display as characters trade jabs, and the whole cast acquits themselves well at the humor. If you're a fan of Merchant's other work, you'll likely be taken with what he's doing here as he piles on the jokes to win over the audience, which gets us on board with the characters and their journey. And to Merchant's credit, he's not afraid to ease up on the comedy if it means taking a dramatic beat to let the characters grow and change.
Even though "Fighting with My Family" is undoubtedly about branding the WWE as a fantasy factory, its biggest strengths are its wit and surprisingly big heart, celebrating underdogs who rumble for what they love.