“Fighting with My Family” is a movie about Paige, the wrestler who became the youngest Divas Champion in WWE history after an upset victory over AJ Lee in her post-NXT main roster debut on “Raw.”
I have no idea what any of that means. But I still had a great time watching “Fighting with My Family.”
Whether you’re an ardent fan of pro wrestling, or, like me, lost interest when Hillbilly Jim retired his overalls in the 1980s, “Fighting with My Family” is an openhearted and inviting comedy-drama. The droll writer-director Stephen Merchant (“Extras,” “Hello Ladies”) might not seem like an obvious choice to make a movie about a pro wrestler. But that outsider perspective works in the movie’s favor, as he works hard to balance humor and sweetness and make the movie entertaining for almost any viewer.
Born Saraye-Jade Knight, Paige (Florence Pugh) had wrestling in her blood, “like hepatitis,” as she puts it in the film. She grew up in a family of wrestlers in Norwich, England, with their “World Association of Wrestling” consisting of a van, a gym and Saturday night bouts for the locals down at the meeting hall.
There are probably a lot of bruises in this family, but also a lot of love. Dad Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) is a Santa-like promoter in a Mohawk and Viking beard, while Mom Julia (Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones”) is a warm, heavily tattooed maternal figure. Both are terrific. Frost relishes adding a more serious, fatherly shade to his usual onscreen wit, while Headey is liberated from playing scowling Cersei on “Game of Thrones” to play the funny, flinty mom.
Paige and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) grew up in the ring together, and it’s assumed that Zodiak Zak has the best chance of making it big. But at a WWE tryout in London, it’s Paige that the canny trainer (Vince Vaughn) picks, not Zak. She’s whisked off to Florida to NXT (sort of the minor leagues of the WWE) to train and compete for a shot at the big show. Meanwhile, Zak nurses his disappointment at home.
The early scenes with the whole family are so fun, so full of life and color and affectionate smackdowns, that it’s a little disappointing when Paige is pulled out of the household and sent half a world away. But perhaps that’s the point, to help us feel Paige’s homesickness and self-doubt as she struggles to fit in with the other female wrestlers, all leggy ex-dancers and models who understand the showmanship aspect of pro wrestling better than she does.
For those who think pro wrestling is all show, it looks like a lot of hard work. It may be “fixed,” as someone says in the film, but it’s not “fake.”
Pugh was a revelation as the conniving Victorian wife of “Lady Macbeth,” and makes an appealing fish-out-of-water heroine here, a pierced, leather-wearing “freak from Norwich” trying to compete against taller, stronger rivals. It’s a familiar sports-movie trope, but done with energy and empathy, as Pugh has to convey both toughness and vulnerability both in and out of the ring. And the parallel story, of Zak back home trying to get past his bitterness over Paige being picked instead of him, adds an extra layer of family drama.
“Fighting with My Family” was produced by WWE Studios and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who has a small role as himself), so it obviously bathes pro wrestling in a pretty rosy glow. But it’s also surprisingly honest about the ins and outs of the sport, and how show business and athleticism dance in the ring together. Vaughn’s coach has a surprisingly unsentimental speech about the hard, lonely life of a “journeyman” pro wrestler, the guys who travel from town to town trying to make the real stars look good.
So is pro wrestling a sport? It must be, because it makes for a darn good sports movie in “Fighting with My Family.”