Fighting with My Family (United Kingdom/United States, 2019)

February 21, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fighting with My Family Poster

Fighting with My Family is a fictionalized biographical look at how WWE performer Paige rose through the ranks of wrestling’s minor leagues to achieve her dream of winning a title bout on international TV. Although the bones of the film’s skeleton hew close to the facts of Paige’s ascent, writer/director Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the original “The Office”) takes liberties with the details, ensuring that the wrestler’s story remains firmly within the Hollywood sports/rags-to-riches tradition. And, although Vince McMahon’s name doesn’t appear in the list of producers, the movie’s glorification of the WWE is so extreme that it sometimes plays out more like an advertisement for the brand than a legitimate motion picture.

There’s a lot of Rocky in the tale of how Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) rose from the rough-and-tumble streets of Norwich, England to take the world by storm in the ring after adopting the stage name of “Paige.” Although there are times when Merchant adopts a tongue-and-cheek attitude toward his characters and there’s plenty of humor to be had, this is at its core a traditional story of someone defying the odds in pursuit of a dream. The screenplay checks all the expected boxes. There’s a gruff mentor-type (played with acerbic wit by Vince Vaughn, who hasn’t been this funny in a long time) who rides Paige hard. There are training sequences (including a montage). And there’s the obligatory bout in which she captures the world’s attention. (The movie ends with Paige’s first WWE victory and doesn’t detail her tumultuous 3 ½ year career, which included failed drug tests, serious injuries, and a leaked sex tape.) The whole thing seems a little too neatly packaged with most of the rough edges sanded off.

Part of the reason for the film’s pro-WWE tone is likely due to the involvement of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose star power was instrumental in getting Fighting with My Family made. In addition to lending his name to the production in an executive producer’s capacity, he has a small role (as himself) – nearly every second of which appears in the trailer. This isn’t a “Rock” movie; the star is the fine up-and-coming British actress Florence Pugh, whose performances in films like Lady Macbeth and The Outlaw King (not to mention the mini-series The Little Drummer Girl) have put her on a lot of critics’ “watch” lists. She is supported by Lena Heady and Nick Frost as her mother, Julia, and father, Ricky; Jack Lowden as her brother, Zack; and Vince Vaughn as her American coach.

The film is more interesting during its first act as it establishes Paige and her environment. She’s the youngest member of a wrestling-obsessed family. Her father, an ex-con who can’t hold down a “regular” job, runs a low-level touring wrestling show in which he, his wife, and his kids are the stars. He also owns an academy where Zack teaches classes. There’s a good deal of authenticity during these early scenes; the artificiality starts to seep in as soon as Paige passes her WWE audition. The conflict between her and Zack offers some potential – he is jealous of her success and can’t let go of his own dream, resulting in a downward spiral – but it’s treated as a subplot whose resolution is too facile. Paige’s admonishment to him about appreciating what he has and believing in himself feels like it was lifted out of a self-help manual.

Fighting with My Family is as likable as it is generic. Pugh’s performance is the best thing about the movie but the story, despite Merchant’s comedic flourishes, feels stale at times. The WWE’s seal of approval keeps everything carefully sanitized and, although there’s an admission that bouts are “fixed,” the film never goes into details. (In this version of Paige’s story, her big fight was unscripted – something that seems unlikely.) Like wrestling itself, this look at one of its superstars follows a script that isn’t entirely founded in reality.

Fighting with My Family (United Kingdom/United States, 2019)

Director: Stephen Merchant
Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Heady, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Home Release Date: 2019-05-14
Screenplay: Stephen Merchant
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Music: Vik Sharma
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2019-02-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1