By Liam Lacey
Disposable but irresistibly good-natured, Fighting with My Family is a multi-hybrid English-American inspirational comedy -- casual and calculated, homespun and corporate.
The World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. brand is all over it, but so is the cheeky humour of writer-director Stephen Merchant, best known as the collaborator of comedian Ricky Gervais. But the movie’s most strategic weapon is gifted young British actress, Florence Pugh, in the lead role of Saraya-Jade Bevis, a.k.a. Paige, the first English woman to perform with the WWE.
Merchant’s source material was the 2012 Channel 4 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, which portrayed the Norwich-based clan – ex-con dad Ricky, former drug user Julia - and their single-family mission to restore the popularity of local wrestling. Then came the surprise: Saraya-Jade’s successful audition with the WWE, where she became the youngest winner of WWE’s Divas Championship at 21 (I have no idea what that signifies).
Meanwhile, her older brother, who fought under the name, Zack Zodiac, was deemed insufficiently bulky for WWE standards, and was left resentfully behind.
Fighting with My Family is a movie where a cast hoists the script to a new level. They’re led by Lena Headey (very funny) and Nick Frost as Julia and Ricky Knight, who have created a not-very-lucrative business and family purpose out of wrestling.
Apart from an older son who is in jail (where Ricky previously spent eight years), the entire family is involved in both running a gym by day and staging matches on weekends. Saraya-Jade, with her straight black hair, black togs and lip ring, adopts a goth persona, and she and her muscular blond, brother (Dunkirk‘s Jack Lowden) slam each other around the ring with carefully choreographed sibling violence while Mom and Dad scream encouragement.
Both Zak and his sister dream of the big time – which means fighting in the WWE in America. As in the real story, they get a chance when they’re invited to a London audition with a WWE recruiter named Hutch (Vince Vaughn), who, between sarcastic put-downs (Vaughn seems to have contributed extensively to his own dialogue), offers boiler-plate inspirational messages about the special commitment and charisma it takes to become an elite professional wrestler (which apparently are somewhere between being a Navy SEAL and an astronaut).
As a splendid example of what such a god might look like, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson also shows up in an extended cameo, offering some inspirational demonstrations of talking smack and lessons in eyebrow semaphore.
After the auditions, Hutch concludes that Paige, as she now calls herself (after Rose McGowan’s character on the TV series, Charmed) has “it” while her brother, Zack, doesn’t. Zack, whose girlfriend is about to give birth, is desperate to convince Hutch that he is as worthy as his sister. But he’s left behind, embittered, when Paige heads to training school in Orlando, Florida.
Her co-students are a trio of willowy American blondes, whose previous experience seems limited to cheer-leading and modelling. The sturdily built, sullen Paige, initially treats them as so many twittering canaries until, naturally, she begins to learn the importance of co-operation.
Meanwhile, Hutch, testing her resolve, seems determined to belittle her and drive her back to England. During a Christmas break when she returns home to Norwich, the movie dips briefly into something like English social realism: Paige comes home and, homesick and depressed, almost decides not to return to Orlando. Her brother has reached the crisis point too, though, ultimately, it’s her family’s collective need that drives her to return.
Fighting’s emotional ups and downs feel repetitive and unrefined but there’s something fresh here in the contrast between the glitz showbiz of pro wrestling arenas and homey scenes in Paige’s crowded home, where both the love and latent violence feel closer to life.
As well, Paige’s attempts to find her “authentic” voice in this artificial world of pro wrestling feel credible, largely thanks to Pugh’s layers of brashness and insecurity. The 23-year-old star of the period drama, Lady MacBeth and the TV mini-series, The Little Drummer Girl, goes deep, even when the material is light.
Like pro wrestling itself, the movie depends on certain kind of mutually-agreed upon fraud: Though the film makes clear the WWE matches are scripted, the climax treats Paige’s 2014 battle with AJ Lee for the Divas Championship as a legitimate upset. I suppose the best answer is to play along because it’s more fun that way.
Fighting in the Family. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant. With Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Duane Johnson, Vince Vaughn and Jack Lowden. Fighting in the Family shows at the Scotiabank Theatre, Yonge-Dundas Cineplex, Carleton Cinema, Cineplex Yonge-Eglington and Cineplex Yorkdale