Fighting with My Family succeeds as a crowd-pleasing sports movie, thanks to its sharp wit and sincere apprecation for its working-class characters.
Dwyane "The Rock" Johnson is everywhere these days, and that includes films that aren't actually about him or a character he plays. That's the case with Fighting with My Family, anyway, but for good reason. The movie is based on the 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, which explores the career of WWE wrestler Paige, aka. the youngest winner of the Divas Championship (among other accomplishments). Johnson joined forces with actor-filmmaker Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the British Office and Extras) to get a docudrama inspired by Paige's real-life experience off the ground and running, and together the pair's creative sensibilities make them a strong match for the subject matter here. Fighting with My Family succeeds as a crowd-pleasing sports movie, thanks to its sharp wit and sincere apprecation for its working-class characters.
Florence Pugh stars in Fighting with My Family as Saraya Knight, a young English woman who comes from a family of small-time professional wrestlers, including her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) - who also teaches wrestling to local kids in Norwich - father Ricky (Nick Frost), and mother Julia (Lena Headey). Saraya and Zak have both dreamed of joining the WWE since they were pre-teens, which is why the pair are beside themselves when they're invited to try-out for the WWE's NXT development branch by its coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). However, thing don't go as planned and only Saraya ends up being recruited by the organization.
Upon making her way to the U.S., Saraya - who chooses "Paige" as her new ring name - struggles to keep up with the demands of her training and finds her gruff Norwich ways of doing things put her at odds with the other female wrestlers. Meanwhile, back at home, Zak wallows in self-pity and begins to isolate himself from his wrestling students, loved ones, and especially Saraya, which only makes life harder for his younger sister. In time, though, the pair come to realize: if they're going to overcome these new obstacles, they'll have to fight alongside their family, in all the forms that it takes.
Fighting with My Family, which Merchant both wrote and directed, is a pretty by the numbers sports film overall, from its formulaic story beats to the inevitable montage of Paige training hard and improving as an athlete. It's the movie's earnest portrayal of its characters that elevates the proceedings into something more memorable than this would suggest. The film takes the time to really develop the members of Paige's family, yet still finds room for humor without seeming like it's looking down on the English working-class and their ways of living. Merchant's script is also empathetic in the way it handles the initial tensions between Paige and the other women of the NXT, making the eventual payoff to that plot thread all the more satisfying and well-earned. It may not offer too many surprises on the way to its predictable outcome but, like a good WWE showdown, it's the execution that really makes Fighting with My Family a winner.
More than that, Fighting with My Family works because - like its title suggests - it's a film about the idea of family and what it means, as much (if not more) than it is a story about wrestling. It's one of the rare mainstream movies that really digs deep into a brother-sister relationship, yet at the same time finds room to examine themes about friendship between women and the dynamic between kids and their parents (both literal and more figurative). Much like The Rock himself, Fighting with My Family finds a way to serve up inspirational lessons about life and how you should treat the people who've either helped you in the past or are there for you now, without coming off as being corny or contrived. Merchant further embraces that scrappy spirit with his direction and shoots the film in a style that's more polished than an actual documentary, yet has a similarly personal look and feeling.
Of course, it helps that the cast feels authentic in their roles across the board. Pugh, in particular, is already an up and comer thanks to her work on films like Lady Macbeth, and her performance as Paige should only keep her star rising on the up and up. Fighting with My Family may split its focus between Paige and Zac, but the former is very much the protagonist and it's fun to watch her learn to embrace her working-class roots and crude manner and make it work for her both in and outside the wrestling ring. The movie also takes the time to explore Zac's insecurities about his failure to make it into the WWE and the complexities of why Paige's success is so difficult for him to swallow, in a way that offers insight into both his and his sister's journey. As a result, their conflict is far more interesting than if Zac had merely been jealous of his sibling.
The supporting ensemble are equally capable here, starting with Frost and Leadey as Paige and Zac's parents. Both actors know how to make characters with outlandish manners and personalities feel real, and that ability certainly helps them in Fighting with My Family. Vaughn, meanwhile, is noticeably buttoned down in his performance as Hutch, even in the scenes where he puts his motor-mouth comedy skills to use to trash-talk Paige and the rest of the NXT recruits. As for Johnson: he only appears in a few scenes (two of which are in the film's trailer), but gets to have some fun by playing himself and riffing on his real-world persona. He may be featured on the poster, but The Rock knows this isn't his movie and doesn't go overboard trying to hog the spotlight in the moments that he does share with Pugh.
In the end, the cast and creatives are what make Fighting with My Family both better than the average formulaic sports movie and one of the best films to feature The Rock in any capacity in the past year. It may be old-fashioned in some ways, but the movie just goes to show that an over-used recipe can still work wonders when you have the right ingredients. While it's not really a film that demands to be seen on a big screen because of its craftsmanship, it's nevertheless the sort of feel-good flick that's all the easier to enjoy when you're watching it with an enthusiastic audience. Even those who've never seen a wrestling contest or know little to nothing about the WWE may find themselves cheering Paige on to go the distance here.
Fighting with My Family is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 107 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content.
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- Fighting With My Family (2019) release date: Feb 14, 2019