Movie Review: Fighting With My Family

Image Source: Variety

Distributor: Lionsgate
Production Companies: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Film4, The Ink Factory, Seven Bucks Productions, Misher Films and WWE Studios
Director: Stephen Merchant
Producers: Kevin Misher and Michael J. Luisi
Scriptwriter: Stephen Merchant
Main Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Merchant and Dwayne Johnson
Released: February 27 2019
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Certificate: 12A

Any die-hard WWE fan will know the ups and downs that Paige has endured on the roster, but perhaps more intriguingly is the backstory that led her to join the world’s biggest professional wrestling organisation in the first place. Her tale was first told in a Channel 4 documentary back in 2012, prior to Paige becoming a big star. Amongst the interested viewers was WWE legend and Hollywood mega-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who was in the UK at that time filming Fast & Furious 6. When the time was right, Dwayne contacted Paige (real name Saraya Knight) about transforming her story into a motion picture, and the result is this charming, witty and heartfelt film.

We’re introduced to the Knight family: Rick (Nick Frost, who is very funny) and Julia (Lena Headey) serve as both performers and promoters for their Norwich-based wrestling company World Association of Wrestling (WAW). Also on the roster are their son Zak (Jack Lowden), and their daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh). Zak has always wanted to be a wrestler, while Saraya is initially unsure but soon adapts and becomes quite a talent. Their frequent calls to WWE Talent Relations eventually pay off, and both Zak and Saraya are invited to a tryout prior to a SmackDown taping in London, where they get some advice from The Rock himself. It’s also here when Saraya is first coined as Paige, based on her favourite character from her favourite TV show, Charmed.

Saraya manages to impress the WWE development chief Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) enough to earn a spot in the company’s NXT farm system. But Zak does not, and when Saraya tries to argue his case, Zak encourages her to ignore him in order to follow her dream. When she follows his advice, though, he is not impressed and enters something of a depression, despite an incoming child to his girlfriend. Mum and dad are delighted, not least because Saraya succeeding will boost their financial prospects massively, but they are still sad to see her go. Saraya is emotional to leave them behind, but she has to follow her dream.

That dream slowly morphs into something of a nightmare, though, as she slowly begins to really struggle in NXT. Paige’s most valuable quality is how much she stands out from the crowd, but she feels like this is a real hindrance, given the company’s apparent preference for blonde, good-looking girls with a background in modelling, cheerleading and/or dancing. Yet the ladies in NXT that match such a description still demonstrate their own passion for wrestling and their own drive to succeed. Despite coming from such a vast wrestling family, Saraya copes very badly, and also alienates her fellow colleagues while failing to impress live crowds, and angering Hutch, who advises her to quit several times.

When Saraya suggests that Zak should be there too, Hutch calmly explains that he doesn’t have what it takes. He explains this to Zak too when he keeps calling WWE, which descends his general mood even further. A one-night return to WAW for Saraya against Zak is a disaster when her brother goes into business for himself, and the fall-out is a proud family in something of a crisis. Fortunately, the right motivational words at the right time begin to turn things around for Saraya, and even Zak begins to not only rediscover his passion for the business, but also his love and care for Saraya. It culminates in her big opportunity, her main roster debut against WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee on Raw the night after WrestleMania XXX, with her family watching on live from home.

Along the way, we get a glimpse into the reality of life in WWE as a developmental talent. We see the Performance Center, we sample the training regiments, promo classes, obstacle courses and other routines of daily life for those who are under WWE contract, but are far from the bright lights of Raw and SmackDown. There are many references to WWE’s history, such as classic clips from some of the company’s biggest stars down the years, as well as nifty editing that combines the newly-filmed footage (well it was filmed in 2017) with the key events from 2014 around the time that Paige landed in WWE proper. A few wrestlers make brief cameos, such as Big Show, Sheamus and The Miz. And of course, there’s The Rock himself, who appears numerous times to deliver some memorable scenes. Dwayne has obviously established himself as a Hollywood superstar on his own merits, but to WWE fans, he’ll always be The Rock, so it’s cool to see what is essentially a hybrid of the two here.

The story itself may be focused on wrestling, but really it could be any sport or any dream that is the motivation for these characters in their own lives. The real tale is of the family, a fascinating collective who may dodge the law on occasion (and be caught and punished for doing so), but they are all well-intentioned, loving, caring and genuine. They are also a likeable bunch; you really do want to see these people succeed, and Saraya most of all, who has the skills and talent that WWE want, but has insecurities and confidence issues that ultimately make her challenge even steeper. The upshot is that the twists and turns do tug at the heartstrings at time, and just like any great wrestling storyline, the audience are taken close to rock bottom before rising up to deliver a grand, feel-good finale.

The humour is also a vital element to this movie. It would be so easy to follow the structure of other wrestling-based movies, and make Paige’s problems about the predetermined nature of wrestling itself. But aside from some perfectly-delivered and suitably-oblivious throwaway comments early on (“It’s all fake anyway, right?”), everybody involved is fully aware that wrestling is entertainment, and that the story is not necessarily about becoming a wrestling champion, but about the family overcoming their personal hurdles, and from a run-down UK background no less. This means that the comedy used has a distinctly British feel to it, and it works very well. Indeed, the first 30 minutes or so are as funny as you could expect from any English movie, not least because the script has been written by Stephen Merchant (who himself appears briefly in the role of a polite, quiet father seems baffled by the chaotic world that is sports-entertainment).

There are other nice touches and nods to wrestling as a whole (diehard fans will chuckle at one of the female NXT wrestlers being called “Jeri-Lynn” in a reference to the former ECW Champion), and this unique form of entertainment is never portrayed as being below anybody, meaning that it should receive more respect from non-fans who watch this film that perhaps do not understand its appeal. I did laugh at the credits mentioning how Dwayne Johnson went on to have a successful Hollywood career. Speaking of which, the credits feature clips from the original C4 doc, as well as footage of the real Paige pinning the real AJ Lee in her actual WWE debut match. I won’t mention the inconsistencies with timelines, settings and situations, since they are par for the course when trying to relive a career history for a performer, but I will say that it was a shame to see Paige’s stint on the NXT show itself ignored, since it was during this time that she went from “that weird British girl” to a genuine future prospect for stardom and one of the early representatives for what would eventually be the Women’s Evolution (the latter of which is acknowledged in the credits).

If you’re looking for a movie that portrays wrestling and WWE in a positive enough light without coming across as an extended advertorial, while having humour, charm, emotion, drama and heart, then Fighting Is My Family is the best film that you could possibly see. The British comedy adds plenty of entertainment, and the family dynamic only makes the whole thing more compelling. When the Channel 4 programme first aired, Paige’s story was very interesting, but all prior to her achieving true fame. Now, as she looks back on her journey, I’m sure she would be very proud of her triumph over adversity and how her tale plays out on the big screen. Wrestling fans definitely will be after watching Fighting With My Family.

Overall Rating: 9/10 – Outstanding