Fighting with My Family (2019)
A Comedy About a Family That Fights a Little Differently
As a casual fan of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), I always knew I’d like Fighting with My Family, but I honestly didn’t expect it to be such an all-round winner — for wrestling fans and non-fans alike. Adapted from the well-received Channel 4 British documentary on the Bevis/ Knight family, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family (2012), writer-director Stephen Merchant’s fictionalized take may’ve slightly altered some events to make ’em more suitable for a film narrative, but loses nothing of the authenticity, laughs and drama that make this story so darn compelling.
Centered on the youngest member of the Bevis clan (or Knight in the ring), Saraya ‘Britani’ Knight (Florence Pugh), Fighting with My Family follows her journey as she attempts to make it as the next wrestling superstar. As it turns out, the Bevis family are absolutely mad for all things wrestling, especially for the then-titled WWF (World Wrestling Federation), seen as the pinnacle of the sports entertainment division with big names such as The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin leading the charge. But this bunch don’t just watch the sport, the entire family — including dad Patrick ‘Rowdy Ricky’ Knight (Nick Frost), mom Julia ‘Sweet Saraya’ Knight (Lena Headey), and older brother ‘Zak Zodiac’ (Jack Lowden) — operate their own independent wrestling circle dubbed World Association of Wrestling (WAW), with Zak regularly running classes for the underprivileged in their small community of Norwich, England.
When a long-awaited chance to join the WWF training program arrives, both Zak and Saraya go for broke to impress, but only Saraya — eventually taking the moniker of Paige as a homage to Rose McGowan’s character in the TV series Charmed (1998-2006) — gets chosen by the tough no-bullshit trainer Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), who wastes no time leading her and her fellow cohorts through a grueling program in the US state of Florida. Back home in Norwich, while Ricky and Julia couldn’t be any prouder of their ‘little girl,’ Zak’s resentment grows deeper as he struggles to adapt to his new role of fatherhood while fighting to accept his younger sister’s success, falling deeper into the bitterness that lead to his older half-brother Roy’s (James Burrows) incarceration.
After all the heated chatter surrounding Capital Marvel and its whole feminist angle, here is an unassuming film that gets on-screen equality right. Straight from the introduction in which a young Saraya is put into a headlock by her brother, only to be challenged by her parents to work her way out (which she does), we quickly come to understand that this isn’t a case of dominance of one gender over another, rather it’s a family that see each other as being on the same page. Mother, father, brother, sister, they’re all in the wrestling business together, treating each other with respect, never belittling one another irrespective of gender.
Likewise, not once in this film is there a sense of overbearing ‘girl power.’ Sure, the flick is a celebration of what Paige achieved by entering the WWF fraternity, ultimately going on to manage the SmackDown brand later down the track, but it never feels as though these heights were reached by thumping a whole bunch of misogynist men. To see Paige roll with the choreographed punches in the ring with her family and then in the training sequences, earning her place over a lifetime, rather than suddenly needing to win all the time, demonstrates true fairness and couldn’t be further removed from the ‘Mary Sue’ accusations, which have plagued the likes of Rey from Disney’s latest Star Wars films.
In addition, in one of the narrative’s most inspired turns, the film sets up a trio of young women (Kim Matula, Aqueela Zoll, and Ellie Gonsalves) as vapid supermodel types, who are in wrestling training, we presume, to get famous and make millions. And it leans into this assumption a lot as we side with Paige, who feels as though she’s owed a spot and they aren’t, because they’re simply fakers. But then there’s the character reveal — one of them — Matula’s Jeri-Lynn is a mother, going for her own dream and trying to set up a better life for her young family. ‘You don’t know anything about me,’ she shoots back at an apologetic Paige. And you know what? She’s right. Merchant then uses this opportunity to challenge our assumptions, taking three characters that could’ve simply been one-dimensional antagonists for our hero to conquer and evolving them (with depth) into solid supports. It’s an unlikely turn for this sort of story that I feel a more generic writer would’ve passed on, with that being the real crux of it right there — Merchant isn’t keen on the generic.
While this may be Stephen Merchant’s second feature film, he’s been cutting his teeth on TV since 1999, most famously with the likes of his controversial mate Ricky Gervais on The Office (2001-03). Here Merchant proves that he’s been simply aching to stretch his storytelling skills into cinema. The pacing is smooth, the direction assured and his well-picked cast, confident. It says a lot that for a film that’s been selling itself on ‘The Rock’ factor — he features prominently on the posters and also serves as a producer — who only pops up in a couple of well-deployed cameo moments, that the central story and performances are strong enough to keep one invested; when Uncle DJ did show up, I was happy to see him (as a fan), but it wasn’t the main reason why I stayed.
Main star Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth (2016), shines and looks as though she’s genuinely having the time of her life, and I guess when you get to play off a good-natured Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, why wouldn’t you be? The banter between Nick Frost, Shaun of the Dead (2004), and Lena Headey, 300 (2006), is consistently endearing and funny, while Jack Lowden, Dunkirk (2017), as Zak, conveys a lot with often minimal dialogue. Vince Vaughn, Wedding Crashers (2005), is also solid, effectively playing a seasoned wrestling veteran who seems to have seen it all before.
Whether you’ve dreamed of being in the wrestling ring at some point in your life or can’t imagine why you would, Fighting with My Family is a fun, kick-ass celebration of the bonds that bring families together, packed with both humor and heart. Much like the real-life Paige, Stephen Merchant looked like an unlikely candidate to deliver the smacks and jabs but ends up being an inspired choice. Give this champion a belt!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie