The anomaly of Fighting with My Family is that it’s a carefully penned and well considered story from the mind of Stephen Merchant. His credit – writing and directing – leads the story with a generous and quintessentially British heart. The first notable WWE biopic, the film covers the 2012 documentary of the same name, about the development of Women’s Champion, Paige (a stunning Florence Pugh). It is remarkable this would be the first choice. The talent attached makes it a no brainer. That it comes from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s production company, betters its credentials, finding authenticity where it would otherwise seem like an extended advertisement. That it’s so careful to avoid this classification and is more interested in a deeply moving family story, above the glamour of the ring, makes this a functionally better biopic than any other likely outcome.
Let’s be clear about this: it’s almost impossible to buy into Florence Pugh as any kind of underdog here. She’s a powerhouse performer, every shot holding the esteem of her intensity and clarity of purpose. That she is a far better performer and more interesting than the character she portrays is to her credit. The central tension is that her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) holds the family dream. He’s trained a community of outcasts and brought hopes into the lives of many (highlight, training a blind kid to wrestle). That he’s taught Paige everything she knows, and she has usurped his dream, when they’re both called to the big leagues for tryouts, remains a bitter source of resentment in their family. Their relationship is perfectly imbued with the arguments of siblings, topped off by wonderful performances from their parents, a fully committed duo of Nick Frost and Lena Heady, both ideally cast.
Having been raised in a hardcore wrestling family, the transition is not totally natural. Paige arrives to find the other women come from modeling and cheerleading, natural performers, but not wrestlers. When someone in her family misjudges a move, she gives them a firm whack (a “receipt”) to know they’ve messed up. This does not go well with the beauty queens. An occasionally game Vince Vaughn plays a down and out former wrestler, now a development scout. His part is weird, and he carries around a horn, asking the ladies to squeeze it if they want to quit. At one point The Rock calls him “Sex Tape”, which is confusing, perhaps the only allusion to Paige’s own infamous tape. “Why did you call him that,” Pugh asks. “Because he makes people famous,” the Rock quips, or cuts into her character’s future bad choices, it’s hard to tell which.
This is Stephen Merchant’s first solo outing as a director. As such, it’s a credible success. He finds layers of comedy and melodrama outside the ring. Fighting with My Family works like any good fighting film, not being about the sport, but the broad canvas of personal emotions. It does not take the serious route of Vision Quest (1985), The Wrestler (2008), or Foxcatcher (2014), but is happily its own thing, somewhere between such serious fare and something imminently enjoyable. It’s very funny and very British, capturing a certain heart and personable quality that is totally unexpected within any kind of WWE production. If the actual WWE product is currently suffering all-time lows in their ratings, it’s good to know that quality ideas are still out there, that there is still a passion for the product and its history.
Ultimately this is a film of high-powered performances and smart writing. It’s a head above our expectations for what it could be. Pugh continues to impress, and paired with Lowden, finds the heart of a lovely sibling comedy that is better than the true story. That is about the best affirmation we can give a biopic – its actors and writing are better than the real thing.