Fighting With My Family

2019-03-15 07:01
 
Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh in a scene from Figh

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

The true story of Saraya “Paige” Knight, the youngest daughter of a family of wrestlers from Norwich, England who went on to become a famous wrestler for the WWE.  

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

When we first meet Saraya Knight, the hero of our story, she is ten years old and in the middle of a pretty full-on wrestling match with her older brother with their parents cheering them on. The scene captures your attention immediately and sets the tone for what is to come. Fighting With My Family is a fairly straightforward sports movie in many ways but the sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous that are clear right from that opening scene give the film a real edge over most of its competitors.

Echoes of other true-life, comic sports dramas like Eddie the Eagle and the immortal Cool Runnings do appear throughout this particular underdog story, to be sure, but the sharp script, spirited performances and assured direction ensures that these echoes are pleasingly familiar rather than tiresome. Stephen Merchant, the co-creator of the Office and Extras and that strange, very tall British fellow who constantly shows up in American comedies and is usually the best thing about them, may not be the obvious choice for this sort of project but that only gives it a freshness that it might have lacked otherwise – even as he shows himself to be at home with the genre’s many familiar, crowd-pleasing tropes.

The genesis of the film is a story itself, in fact. While shooting Fast and Furious 6 in the UK, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson saw a documentary on local TV about this wrestling family from a small English town, the youngest of which went on to become a major star in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). The documentary struck a chord immediately with the former wrestler, who himself came from a working-class wrestling family, and he called up Stephen Merchant, with whom he had been friends since the two worked together on the widely reviled The Tooth Fairy and asked him to take a crack at turning the documentary into a feature film. Despite not being a fan at all of wrestling and being surprised that the Rock would consider him for this kind of film, something about the story resonated with Merchant and the unlikely duo set off to bring this strange little story to the masses.

This explains, incidentally, why the Rock appears in the film even though he was never previously aware of the Knight family and why, despite being a major part of the film’s marketing, he only appears in a couple of (very memorable) scenes in the film. Small, independent-type films are not the easiest sell in today’s cinema culture so Dwayne Johnson’s status as a major box-office draw and one of the most charismatic and beloved movie stars around gave this scrappy little film a chance to hit the big time. And we can all be thankful to Mr. Johnson for that. Fighting With My Family is slightly flabby in the middle but is otherwise an inordinately charming, funny and heartfelt delight.

Merchant, in his solo-directorial, feature-film début (he has directed TV series and co-directed Cemetery Junction with his old partner-in-crime, Ricky Gervais) has always been a singularly funny guy so it’s not surprising that the film is laugh-out-loud funny at times but for someone known for a more downbeat, even cynical way with the dramatic (see everything from the Office (UK) to Ladies Man), he brings a real tenderness, even sentimentality to the way he tells the story of this incredible young woman and her loveable, if off-beat family. 

Mind you, if the real-life people are as endearing as they are portrayed here – and apparently they very much are – it’s not too hard to see why Merchant brings such generosity of spirit to their biopic. Nick Frost hasn’t been this good in years as the rough but loveable patriarch of the family, Ricky, an ex-con who found salvation in wrestling and his wife, Julia (Lena Heady, excellent playing the literal opposite of Cersei Lannister).

Their two kids (there’s also a third from a previous coupling), Zak and Saraya, are no harder to root for as a pair of siblings who literally spend their days fighting each other in wrestling exhibitions that the family puts on across the country as a way of making a living, but who are, in reality, big-hearted misfits who support each other in everything.

Jack Lowden is pitch-perfect as Zak as he goes from the supportive brother of his little sister to being a young man struggling with jealousy and broken dreams as that same sister “takes” the life that he was supposed to have. Florence Pugh is even better, though, as Saraya/Paige herself, bringing easygoing charm, vulnerability and emotional range to a wonderfully drawn character. All the characters, in fact, are basically likeable but no less complex for it. The way the film portrays Saraya’s relationship with her glamour-model rivals for a spot in the WWE is especially well done and unexpected.     

These are not your average movie heroes, representing a part of society that are often overlooked, if not outright treated with contempt and it is to the film’s greatest credit that paints them in such a flawed but positive light. Similarly, the much derided “sport” of wrestling is treated with an impressive amount of sympathy here, even if the film never pretends that it’s something it isn’t. The mantra throughout the film is that “wrestling is fixed, not fake” and, by the end of the film, it’s hard to argue with that.

Though wrestling matches are scripted and/ or improvised to play out as testosterone-driven soap opera, the film makes it clear that the physical demands on the wrestlers is very much real, as an intimidating amount of strength, stamina and agility are needed to compete in the big leagues. The showbiz aspect of it, though, does give the film a different flavour to most sports films – Saraya’s road to victory is as much about winning over the crowds as it is about physical training. 

It’s no spoiler to say that she certainly does exactly that, nor that Fighting With My Family manages to do exactly the same.

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