Some time in the past ten years or so, Hollywood realized that all the most mainstream sports were far too well-worn to continuously wring out for cash. In lieu of releasing yet another “inspiring” story about football, baseball, or boxing, they wisely chose to turn their attentions to lesser-known sports. This has ushered in a fascinating new era for the sports genre, covering everything from figure skating (I, Tonya), roller derby (Whip It), skiing (Eddie the Eagle), MMA (Warrior), and tennis (Battle of the Sexes). The newest entry, Fighting With My Family, tackles the humorous, fascinating, and insanely popular world of WWE wrestling, and while the material covered is pretty well-worn in the genre, great acting and a steady hand by writer-director Stephen Merchant help make this film a real treat.
“Zodiac” Zak (Jack Lowden) and Saraya “Britani Knight” Bevis (Florence Pugh) have known professional wrestling all their lives. Their parents, Rick (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) found each other through the sport, and it’s the thing that keeps their family together through the ups and downs. They own a gym, they train local kids, have set up their own chapter, and they all hold out hope that one day, the children will defy the odds and make it all the way to the WWE. Their fate changes when their audition tapes are seen by Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), a trainer who is looking for the next wrestling superstar. However, despite all the signs pointing to Zak, the older wrestler with better form, a fan base, and a signature move, Saraya finds herself the only one picked by the stern Morgan. Now, isolated from her family, doubting her own abilities, and unable to fit in with the other female trainees, Saraya (now known as “Paige”) has to push herself further than she ever dreamed possible to achieve not only her own goals, but her family’s as well.
The most interesting thing about Fighting With My Family is the way it approaches both the sport of wrestling and the way it creates a sports movie in general. From the get-go, Family has no qualms with admitting that wrestling is, at its heart, a goofy-ass sport. It doesn’t try to hide the fact that the fights are choreographed and half of the significance is in the over-the-top characters (like a dorky guy named Dwayne dressing in spandex and bellowing “CAN YOU SMELL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKING?!?), but it also makes sure that audiences understand just how joyful the sport can be. It presents wrestling as an open-armed community, a place for the freaks and weirdos of society to find themselves inside hilarious costumes and battles. And while they admit up front that WWE is fake (sorry, “fixed,” as the film humorously corrects detractors), that doesn’t mean it isn’t athletic – the film goes to great lengths to show just how taxing on the body wrestling can be, including burpees, bench pressing, gymnastics, and flipping tires. The film portrays wrestling as an athletic endeavor that remains inclusive to everyone, even a blind kid – a filmmaking decision I considered a cheap gimmick until the closing credits revealed it to be real. In its execution, Family includes traces of great sports movies both weird and straight, including the camaraderie and wrestling staging of GLOW, the witty insight into an oft-maligned sport of I, Tonya, and the uplifting tale of accomplishment found in Pride of the Yankees (the film it most greatly resembles in terms of structure). However, perhaps above all, the film Fighting With My Family most resembles is The Fighter, the story of an athletic champion who must also deal with the ambitions and shortcomings of a weirdo family that both loves them and inadvertently sabotages them. Like David O. Russell’s 2010 classic, the film builds itself around a terrific ensemble; it’s about a family built on lovable idiosyncrasies, gut-wrenching personal battles, and cathartic familial ties. The family plays several different roles, sometimes at the same time: parents Ricky and Julia “Sweet Saraya” are supportive, if wonderful over-the-top weirdos, but it is Zak who has the most emotional arc outside of Paige. In yet another parallel to The Fighter, Merchant juxtaposes Paige’s struggle to become a champion and live out her dream with the death of her brother’s. Thankfully, while Zak’s arc is as emotionally charged and heartfelt as Christian Bale’s Dicky, it is nowhere near as gut-wrenchingly hard to watch, allowing the film to tread similar water without ever overwhelming its audience. It is, at the end of the day, a heartfelt sports comedy-drama, and it knows exactly how to play the beats to provide entertainment.
As for the filmmaking, Merchant’s work is perfectly adequate. It’s visual and narrative choices are fairly pedestrian in nature, but it finds itself belayed by great writing, particularly in its liberal, yet intelligent, use of humor. While the film is not overtly funny, it does contain certain aspects of Merchant’s trademark wit. Merchant loves throwing in little sequences of fun, from light to dark, like the way he ironically presents the end title cards, or a scene where the other wrestlers are so in love with Paige’s accent they ask her to read the news for her. She proceeds to read, “The fire claimed the lives of five orphans.” Their response? “God, so sexy!” And then there’s the scene where Zak has to introduce his girlfriend’s fairly conservative family to his own eccentric one. And speaking of the family, let’s talk about their portrayal. Merchant expertly fleshes out this family of weirdoes and misfits, allowing them room to grow, comfort, and entertain. They are given the necessary heart to win over audiences and comfort their daughter as she struggles to achieve her dreams, while also allowing themselves to be used as comic relief whenever needed. I loved all four of them, but I do want to give special praise to the film’s handling of Zak. Outside of Paige, Zak has the largest arc in the film, handled with a surprising amount of intelligence and depth. By using his downward spiral into alcoholism and bar fights to juxtapose Paige’s struggle to become a professional wrestler, it creates not only a family saga, but a true sense of both the passion needed and the hard work required to become a professional athlete. It serves the themes well and creates and emotional pathos outside of just Paige, all thanks to Merchant’s direction. Oh, and while we’re talking about Merchant’s directing, I’d like to note that his work on the public speaking scenes was so anxious and tense, it actively raised my heart rate 30 bpm, so that’s a new issue.
Which brings us to the cast, which may be, at the end of the day, the strongest aspect of the film. Obviously the one-two punch of Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden is massively impressive, thanks to their handling of the weighty material as well as the comedy and athleticism. Pugh is effortlessly endearing, humorous, and talented as the woman who becomes Paige, while Lowden demonstrates depressive rage and alcohol-fueled self-destruction well. Meanwhile, Nick Frost is incredible as what can only be described as a “more likeable Ricky Gervais” (who you could absolutely see playing this role, except as less personable and more obnoxious). Also great is Vaughn as trainer Hutch Morgan, who is finally proving after years of disappointing lead roles in Delivery Man, The Break Up, and Couples Retreat that he is, in fact, a much more gifted character actor. Merchant, himself a talented actor, shows up in exactly the way you hope he will (as a morally upright parent confounded by the Knights), and while he shows up one time too many (which is irritating because he never actually met Paige and insisted he have a role as a producer), it is great to see the old-school, shouttastic Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) doing his classic wrestling routine. Kim Matula, Aqueela Zoll, and Ellie Gonsalves are entertaining and heartfelt as fellow wrestling trainees Jeri-Lynn, Kirsten, and Maddison. And I want to take a moment to point out how great Lena Headey is as Saraya Knight. Between 300 and her long-running role on Game of Thrones (which she is admittedly great on, despite oftentimes weaker scripts), it’s easy to forget how great Headey is as an actress. Capable of being funny, smart, athletic, and sweet, all at the same time. Here’s hoping with Game of Thrones ending she gets a chance to give performances like this one again, in order to get the recognition she deserves.
Fighting With My Family is the type of film that audiences eat up – as well they should. It’s inspiring, it’s funny, and its heart is entirely in the right place. You won’t see anything new storytelling wise, but let’s be honest: who sees a sports comedy-drama for something new? We go to have our hearts lifted by scrappy underdogs, to be inspired by people pushing their bodies to the limits, and to dream of a time when we ourselves were capable of seemingly-impressive feats of athleticism. Stephen Merchant and his entirely game cast check off these boxes with general ease, and the result is a fun, worthwhile entry to the genre.