Fighting With My Family (2019)
Director: Stephen Merchant
Screenwriter: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Stephen Merchant’s movie about wrestling isn’t just any old titter-tattered attempt at recreating the spectacle and pomposity of the WWE, nor is it a recreation of the down-trodden reality check that was The Wrestler, it is instead a heartfelt underdog story that truly captures the very essence of what it feels like to be a wrestling fan, mixing elements of the bad and the good of the wrestling profession to present a Rocky-like story that anybody, whether a fan or not, can engage with and ultimately get behind. This is probably the 2nd best wrestling movie ever made.
Produced by the heavily promoted but only sporadically featured Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, himself a former WWE wrestler from a wrestling family background, in partnership with the biggest wrestling company on the planet WWE and the folks behind the documentary source material Film4, Fighting With My Family holds such a clear respect (if not admiration) for professional wrestling as a means of entertainment that it is simply palpable – even if you’ve never seen a wrestling match in your life, this film is enough to get you hooked.
Fighting With My Family does, at times, offer moments that are far from the truth, but it all seems in aid of its uplifting central arc, the likes of which we could do with more of in the current landscape. In presenting the Gothic wannabe wrestler Saraya (ring-name Paige) as an outcast from society due to her family’s love of wrestling, and then furthering that aspect by having her appearance be chalk and cheese to the typical WWE “Diva”, Merchant and company develop the old “outcast finds acceptance” trope as the film’s central theme, something any wrestling fan can relate to given how grossly misrepresented the industry is by the general public. In this sense, Merchant’s movie is more a coming of age picture reminiscent of the turn of the century teen films we’ve all come to love (like Ghost World) rather than a straight sports movie, and it works. The characters are worth investing in, their stories particularly unique in specifics but universal in generalities – who doesn’t want to see someone achieve their dream? – and the icing on the cake is the film’s unrivalled access to legitimate WWE branded facilities, events and merchandise. Never has wrestling seemed so vibrant, the top felt so special and unique. In watching Fighting With My Family it becomes abundantly clear as to why the central cast of characters would choose to pursue the dream of being a wrestler, no matter how wild and speculative it may seem before setting eyes on the movie. This is probably Merchant’s biggest achievement behind the camera and is the largest benefit of having Dwayne Johnson steer the ship at executive level as well as having WWE Studios on board; Fighting With My Family is a true story about a real dream, and never is the significance of that lost during the duration of its run-time.
The authenticity of the surroundings and Merchant’s wonderful capturing of the dream itself come to fruition largely because of the attention paid to the family at the centre of the movie – themselves a rag-tag bunch of misfits who clearly care so immensely for one another that you can’t help but to root for them. The movie’s base in Paige’s hometown of Norwich, England consolidates this, family dinners, overseas phone calls and constant reminders of the grind of real-life putting into context the surreal nature of the lead character’s career. Florence Pugh is particularly endearing in the lead role, her portrayal being loyal to the real-life wrestling superstar without seeming like forced mimicry, and her dedication to learning some of the wrestling having a positive impact on just how real the film felt – it would have been hard to come back from a “that wasn’t her” moment at the height of the story’s most emotional moments.
Nick Frost and Vince Vaughn were also particularly strong, Frost offering a hard man with a heart of gold in the best performance of his non-Cornetto-Trilogy film career as Paige’s Dad, while Vaughn played a tough speaking coach whose own history developed him into the mentor figure Paige needed, each veteran actor offering moments here and there that brought smiles, grimaces and a general sense of class to a movie that actually wasn’t short of it, even despite being about wrestling.
It’s not that Fighting With My Family blows anything out of the water – in fact, it doesn’t at any stage step beyond your typical sports movie/coming-of-age screenplay formula and will hardly be an art-house breakout hit – but it is a lot of fun, and the wrestling is by far the best looking that has existed on the big screen since The Wrestler. This Stephen Merchant offering is a truly fitting tribute to such a grossly misunderstood and misrepresented industry that will deliver a feel-good hearty dream-come-true movie to anyone willing to give it a chance. Fighting With My Family is truly the most uplifting film of the year so far.