I’m not sure anyone could have seen this coming. After co-directing Cemetery Junction with ex creative partner Ricky Gervais in 2010, comedian Stephen Merchant went from strength to strength with his solo television work on Hello Ladies as well a string of strong performances in films such as Logan. But for his solo feature directorial debut he’s brought us the real life story of WWE professional wrestler Saraya ‘Paige’ Knight, a young woman from Norwich who rose up and became the youngest champion of the WWE Divas championship ever. It’s certainly not what I expected from the British comedian, but after seeing it I’m more than happy to eat my words because Fighting with My Family is one of the most feel good and warm films I’ve seen in some time.
Don’t be fooled of course. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson may be plastered all over the film’s advertising but aside from two small scenes he’s limited to a producer credit, allowing Merchant’s knack for dry wit to shine through more than anything. Immediately we’re shown Paige’s family of wrestlers. Her brother Zak (Jack Lowden), dad Patrick (Nick Frost) and mum Julia (Lena Headey) all run a local wrestling federation with hopes of Paige and Zak joining the big leagues of the WWE, as is their dream. Of course, when their shot arrives the company only shows interest in Paige, separating her from her family and putting a strain on the relationship between her and her brother as she fights to achieve this dream of hers.
On paper it’s all very typical sports biopic stuff; it’s rather difficult to make many successful sport personality stories stand out from the crowd (ironically) due to their similarities in challenges. In that case a film needs a strong cast of characters in order to truly make a splash – and it’s here where Fighting with My Family shines. Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) offers up a likeable and grounded performance as Paige. She blends effortlessly into the alternative look and attitude of the real-life performer, and breathes an indescribable spark of determination into the character that’s difficult to pin down. Pugh has made a name for herself over the past few years, cherry-picking roles to highlight her talent and 2019 seems to be no exception. In the film’s wrestling scenes she’s physical and raw, with a blatant vulnerability that the audience can see being chipped away as she becomes more confident as a wrestler. Whilst there are moments where the story beats tend to feel like a WWE version of 8 Mile, she continues to keep the film’s attention on the right track thanks to her chemistry with the rest of the cast.
Speaking of which, it’s difficult to think of a family more perfectly-suited to each other in recent times on screen. Nick Frost is an impossibly-lovable rogue as the father, a man whose hardened past does little up against his compassion and warmth for his family. Lena Headey’s Julia offers up an amazing counterpart; as the matriarch of the family she knows her blood’s vices inside and out. The two of them make for a remarkable comedic double-act, especially juxtaposed against more conservative characters such as Stephen Merchant and Julia Davis’ Hugh and Daphne. Jack Lowden arguably has the most difficult role as Zak, a character who depends on his likeability in order to emphasise the disruption between him and his family after his behaviour spirals out of control due to missing out on his dream. It’s a testament to the performance that you feel his pain throughout, and his inevitable breakdowns, whilst nothing we’ve not seen before, ring true and never feel like a betrayal of the man who’s been supporting his sister from the beginning. All of them bounce off each other with brilliant comedic timing and make the moments where the film heads back to the UK a real treat.
Vince Vaughn manages to continue his surprising turn of powerful performances too as Hutch Morgan – talent scout for WWE and Paige’s coach throughout her tryouts in Florida. Hutch’s previous experience and hardened attitude make his inevitable opening-up about his past inescapable, but Vaughn’s natural performance and sly charm work well with the tone of the film. His moments alone with both Zak and Paige are profoundly empathetic and professional simultaneously, and I hope Vaughn continues to take such on such fulfilling roles in his career.
It has to be stated that I have little-to-no wrestling knowledge, but Merchant seems to have a back catalogue of encyclopedic power on the presentation side of things. He directs the matches themselves with the same gusto and anarchy of the televised performances; he truly understands the power shot changes have in filming wrestling scenes and it shows. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the comradery and showmanship later on when the ‘Raw’ and ‘Smackdown’ stadiums are in full flow, coming alive with an army of screaming fans as they watch Paige and her fellow wrestlers brawl it out for a chance at the spotlight. With an extensive history of British sitcoms, Merchant’s directorial style feels a tad more rigid and structured in the Knight household. He operates the cameras like a well-oiled machine that knows the correct framing and cues for the comedy he’s crafted with the film’s script. Admittedly, much of the humour leans on crude vulgarity or dry sarcasm, but in the hands of such experienced performers every laugh feels well-earned.
It’s the combination of the laughs involved and the heart of the story that is needed to fight back against the cynical mass-produced feeling the film tends to have at certain points. It’s hard to ignore the WWE logos plastered everywhere, combined with the incessant talk about the company being able to make dreams come true. Whilst I’m sure this was very much the mindset of Paige and her family throughout the story, it’s difficult not to feel as if we’re watching a commercialized product. It’s why Merchant is vital to the entire process. For example, during the training period as Paige works alongside upcoming performers at NXT in Florida, her relationship with the other women wrestlers is put to the test as she clashes with their stereotypical, model-like looks and personalities. Many other films would play out the same tethered relationship as Paige would prove herself better than the ‘girls’ who are only there for their looks, but instead we’re proven wrong. More than that, Paige herself is proven wrong in her prejudices and it adds a layer of depth that less-refined sports dramas would go along with. It’s one of a handful of moments I found myself with a big, stupid grin on my face.
Fighting with My Family is a big cage-match of cliches and familiar beats, but we often forget why these features become tropes – when applied correctly, they’re immensely satisfying and entertaining. Sure a film like this isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s better than a WWE-produced wrestling biopic based in Norwich has any right to be.