There has been a surplus of biopics recently, and Fighting with My Family, the comedy-drama written and directed by Stephen Merchant, is the latest entry in the genre. Fighting explores the professional wrestling world, an environment which hasn’t been displayed much in cinema, at least not to this degree. Merchant, along with co-executive producer Dwayne Johnson, focuses on Paige (Florence Pugh), the wrestler from England who went from obscurity to WWE Divas champion. Her rise to fame sparked a revolution in professional wrestling as women flexed their ability and appeal.
Paige’s real name is Saraya Bevis, and it’s interesting to note she comes from a wrestling family. Her parents (played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey) run a wrestling gym, but also promote and manage Saraya and her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden). Saraya grows up wrestling with and against her family, and she eventually earns a tryout (along with Zak) with the WWE. WWE is the NFL of pro wrestling, and if they can survive tryouts Saraya and Zak could make their dreams of becoming champion wrestlers a reality. There’s a problem, though, only Saraya is chosen to continue training with WWE, and Zak’s dreams (along with his pride) are shattered. Saraya travels to Florida to train and tryout with the WWE’s NXT program, but she quickly realizes she may not be cut out for the entertainments sport’s high demands.
Besides being an underdog story, Fighting is also a tale of family. Through Saraya, viewers can easily see she’s family oriented, and everything a family member experiences, good or bad, is shared with the entire family. When Saraya’s in Florida, she’s homesick and it contributes to what becomes a fish out of water story. Merchant smartly highlights Saraya’s separation anxiety and it naturally shows us Saraya’s outsider status and her growing loneliness. Add to that Zak’s heartbreak (and his failure to move on from it), and you have a movie that speaks to those lonely souls who battle depression and anxiety for a myriad of reasons.
Merchant, who’s probably best known in America as Caliban in 2017’s Logan, has been acting for years, earning plenty of experience, namely comedy experience. Although, Fighting is more drama than comedy, Merchant takes a lighter approach to Saraya’s story and simultaneously provides some insight to professional wrestling. Under Merchant’s direction, he gets some strong performances from Pugh, Lowden and the rest of the cast. Johnson, who appears as himself (and unleashes his alter ego, The Rock, on one occasion), adds credibility and lets the wrestling fans out there know this is WWE-approved. Even if you take out Johnson, Fighting is fun and inspirational and provides a fresh take on the underdog theme.
Since this is based on a true story, I can’t confirm Fighting’s accuracy. What’s important is that Saraya broke through in a male-dominated field and became one of WWE’s biggest draws. In that sense, Saraya is a pioneer and the latest example that anything is possible as long as you have the patience, determination and ability.
I almost forgot to mention this, but Vince Vaughn co-stars as Hutch Morgan. He’s delightful as a WWE trainer who uses a tough love approach to discover and develop future WWE talent. Vaughn doesn’t go full-on Vaughn, but that’s perfect since he’s not the focus. Merchant, though, takes time to provide Hutch with a backstory that puts Saraya’s into perspective while helping viewers realize that success and failure are separated by a fine line.
Although Fighting uses some obvious film tropes, its feel-good story, confident acting and positive vibes proves this a welcome winner. It won’t likely blow the doors open at the box office, but those willing to take a shot on a “wrestling movie” will come away impressed with its never-give-up message and pro-family themes.
3.5 stars out of 5