There’s been lots of underdog stories throughout the years, especially in the realm of sporting stories. The Rocky series is the classic example, as well as the more comedic and aptly titled DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story. This year, The Office UK co-creator Stephen Merchant delivered us Fighting with My Family—his take on a classic sporting underdog tale, this time with a refreshing female perspective.
Inspired by the Channel 4 documentary The Wrestlers, Fighting with My Family tells the real-life story of a wrester named Saraya-Jade Bevis, a.k.a. Paige (Florence Pugh), and her rise to becoming a WWE champion. We also follow the Bevis family, including Paige’s older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) and her fanatical wrestling parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey).
As someone who doesn’t follow WWE, I was hoping the story didn’t simply pander to wrestling fans. Stephen Merchant was approached by Dwayne Johnson—a producer on the film—who sought out Merchant to write and direct an adaptation of this story as his first solo feature. But Merchant wasn’t a wrestling fan, and instead preserved the story to simply be about someone who was eager to make it in their profession, despite their lack of privilege. It’s no surprise Merchant has stated that two of his biggest inspirations when adapting this story were 8 Mile and Billy Elliot.
Fighting with My Family firmly follows all of the underdog story beats. But what makes this film more than a throwaway true-story biopic, is its unabashed wit and likability, and it’s incredibly heartfelt emotional depth. The real heart of the film is the Bevis family and their loving bond. They’re not a family which comes from a privileged background, but find true connection in their shared love for wrestling.
Paige and Zak both had a life goal of joining the WWE, having trained at their parent’s independent wrestling school in Norwich from a young age. While they both get a chance to audition to go to Florida and train to become a WWE wrestler, only Paige gets through, and their lives divulge as Zak’s dream is crushed and Paige goes off to Florida alone, leaving Zak behind with his wife and baby.
Without her brother, Paige is thrown into the deep end, lacking the support and companionship she’s always had. Zak has his hopes crushed in an instant, with his younger sister living his life-long dream. One of the film’s strongest scenes is a simple conversation between them, where emotions aren’t kept in check and home truths are delivered. It’s this parallel story of hope and heartbreak which gives the film more of its dramatic punch, with Jack Lowden’s grief-stricken performance as Zak being one of the film’s highlights.
With Stephen Merchant at the helm, I wasn’t surprised to see a fair helping of wit injected throughout. Nick Frost gives a fantastic performance as the hard-edged, but loveable father of Paige and Zak. He and Lena Headey play brilliantly off each other as the supportive Bevis parents. Vince Vaughn is firmly in his comedic wheelhouse, as Paige’s WWE trainer-meets-drill sergeant, Hutch Morgan. He gets to deliver a fair dose of scathing wit, bringing a lot of energy into the sequences with Paige and her fellow trainees. Dwayne Johnson himself may be the biggest person on the poster, but as I expected, only appears for a few scenes – so don’t go in hoping he’s a large supporting player.
The portion of the film that follows Paige and her training in Florida contains a lot of comedic and dramatic weight, centering on Paige’s inability to fit in. She’s surrounded by bikini-clad female wrestlers, who she believes aren’t there due to their wrestling passion and prowess, but simply their looks. Those relationships evolve in a way which once again gives the film more depth than expected.
The show-stopping performance from Florence Pugh, as Paige, makes the film reach a whole new high. After receiving critical acclaim for her turn in Lady Macbeth, she gets to show off her physical side in a performance which manages to combine physicality fierceness, with vulnerability and consistent charm, helping Paige become a character who is incredibly easy to connect with and root for.
As a director, Merchant’s strength is being able to extract great performances out of his actors and create a tone which is incredibly consistent—shifting from drama and comedy with a deft touch. There’s no incredible technical presence in terms of directorial style, but it’s clear the focus is on harnessing the tone. Considering he delivers on the latter so well, I can accept the lack of overt creativity on show. Thankfully, Merchant never pokes fun at wrestling as a sport, considering WWE is known for being a sport which many would say is ‘fake’. One of the most important things non-wrestling aficionados like myself will discover is that the sport may be fixed, but it most definitely isn’t fake.
Fighting with My Family doesn’t do anything all that new, but it delivers on its emotional and comedic beats well enough that its formulaic narrative can be forgiven. The thematic arc of maintaining your individuality and embracing who you are is one that’s been discussed many a time, but if the film hits on an emotional level—which it does—that’s no problem. In the film Hutch Morgan says to his trainees that the world of WWE is a ‘soap opera in spandex’. Along with a generous amount of genuine heart along the way, it perfectly sums up this film to a T.
Fighting with My Family comes out in Perth cinemas on March 21.