In what amounts to the biggest surprise of the year so far, Stephen Merchant’s Fighting With my Family is quite the delight! Even for non-wrestling fans – like myself, dear reader, perpetually immune to any form of sporting activity – this Dwayne Johnson-starring and produced effort is an entertaining exploration of a real-life Norwich-based family enamoured with the sport, whose lives change when their daughter is signed by the WWE.
The Knight’s family life revolves around wrestling and when their daughter Saraya is signed to the WWE, she moves to Los Angeles to begin training under the ring name ‘Paige’. Facing mixed success during her training and with her brother reeling from his rejection, Paige begins to feel short-changed and questions whose dream she is really chasing. Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Vince Vaughn and in a glorified cameo (despite heavy prominence in all marketing material) The Rock himself, Fighting With My Family is a conventional but crowd-pleasing match.
Dramatised from the 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, Stephen Merchant writes and directs this surprisingly cohesive mish-mash of genres: a sports biopic with a hearty serving of comedy and dramatic heft, you may be surprised at the complexity of this film. Constructed as a pretty straightforward ‘underdog’ narrative, this is an undoubtedly formulaic piece that follows a rather rigid structure, hindered further by the preordained victory — but imbued in the conventionality is some emotional depth and resonance that catches you off guard, making the journey rewarding. Of course, the humour is consistent too – not that you’d expect any less.
As well as his impressive work with the script, Merchant directs with similar skill. For his first solo directorial effort, there’s confidence to his work that dismisses fears of any first-time jitters. Electricity to the crowd scenes makes it a worthwhile finale, cutting between two locations to effectively heighten the tension. On home turf, the ring sequences have a real passion to them but he remembers to lap up the sun we’re abroad with Paige in the course of her training. It’s not particularly flashy by any means
Merchant, who openly declared himself a disregarder of wrestling when the project landed in his lap, does a mighty fine job at tuning the script for wrestling enthusiasts and general audiences alike. It embraces the sports tropes and sets the parameters of our understanding – it’s “fixed but not fake” – but smartly places the emotional heft in more universal themes that will be recognised by wider audiences. One tender sub-plot regarding brother Zak’s perceived failure is a fantastically-executed exploration of male grief and mental health, with Jack Lowden delivering a tremendous performance permeated with real sensitivity.
For all intents purpose though, this is Florence Pugh’s smackdown and she truly delivers. With a scrappy performance packed with energy, emotion and technicality, Pugh proves why she’s one of the most promising new talents to emerge. She’s a magnetic presence and, as such, we feel her every hit she takes, willing her success at every turn. It’s really strong dramatic work from Pugh and Lowden, with Nick Frost and Lena Headey on hand as fantastically-matched comedic relief; there are some real laugh-out-loud moments throughout the film and the pair sell them for all their worth. While some of the other punchlines can be spotted a mile off, Frost and Headey land each and every one with gusto, without turning Patrick and Julia into walking-talking caricatures; we embrace this weirdly wonderful family, far more than you may intially expect to.
In fact, it is those expectations that Fighting With My Family successful subverts that make it so enjoyable. I’ll throw my hands up here and admit to writing it off initially. I went to see it because I go to see everything at the cinema; I had absolutely no idea that I’d find it so completely endearing. It’s far from perfect but very much like the family at the story’s heart, it is loveably rough around the edges, with more complexity in its themes than its formulaic structure and narrative arc would suggest. Fighting With My Family is worth taking to the ring for.