REVIEW: ‘Fighting with My Family’ is a surprisingly poignant love letter to pro wrestling

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Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh in “Fighting with My Family.”

Cameron Hoover

Professional wrestling, itself one of the most elaborate performances in live television, hasn’t really gotten its due in terms of scripted movies. Other than “Ready to Rumble” or “Nacho Libre” if you want to stretch, the trials and tribulations of pro wrestlers has been largely ignored by Hollywood films, especially considering the path to stardom in the WWE.

In “Fighting with My Family,” writer-director Stephen Merchant uses the quick, sharp wit that he brought to “The Office” to create a genuinely heartwarming, consistently funny look at professional wrestling and the camaraderie that it creates amongst its most ravenous supporters.

FILM FACT BOX

Title: Fighting with My Family

Director: Stephen Merchant

Starring: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, Aqueela Zoll

Writer: Stephen Merchant

Runtime: 108 minutes

The film is essentially a biopic of WWE star Paige (Florence Pugh), née Saraya-Jade Bevis, born in Norwich, England, into a family with an identity unmistakably steeped in professional wrestling. Paige’s given first name came from the name of her mother’s in-the-ring persona. The whole family put on wrestling events together. Her brother, Zak Zodiac (Jack Lowden), was able to name every WWE superstar by the time he was 3 years old.

Trouble comes after Paige and her brother audition for a spot in WWE training camp; Paige gets in. Zak doesn’t. What follows is a strong film with a clear message as we follow Paige in America through her challenges during training camp — both physically and mentally — and the rest of the family as they grapple with the changes back home in England.

“Fighting with My Family” is one of the most pleasant surprises so far in the early stages of 2019. The movie’s not perfect — it runs into some pacing issues in the latter stages of its second act — but Merchant is able to capture magic in each of the scenes with whip-fast, decidedly British dialogue that keeps the film lighthearted but never lets it lose sight of its bigger themes.

The main theme here — you guessed it — is family, whether that be in the traditional mother-father-children mold or a de facto family made up of people you may not necessarily be related to by blood. I personally never got into professional wrestling when I was growing up — my mom thought it would make me stupider — but even today, as a college-aged adult, many of my friends still love professional wrestling. Much like last year’s Oscar-nominated “Shoplifters,” a main tentpole of “Fighting with My Family” is that family comes from where you feel like you belong, not what you were born into.

On the other hand, the actual familial relationship — especially between Paige and Zak — is the most prominent emotional thrust of the film. Merchant takes his time in showing his characters’ passion for wrestling and, more importantly, the way it makes them feel, the freedom it brings that they can’t otherwise find.

That is thanks in large part to a seriously transformative performance from Florence Pugh. If you’ve seen her in something, it was probably originally written by Shakespeare. After parts in “King Lear” and “Lady MacBeth,” Pugh is completely unrecognizable here as a badass rocker who looks like she frequents biker bars more than the theater. It’s truly a breakout for Pugh, especially after she received moderate acclaim for her part in last year’s “Outlaw King.”

“Fighting with My Family” has an authenticity to it not possible to attain without a genuine love for its subject matter. Merchant and producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, himself once a WWE star, clearly possess a passion for the story they’re telling, and it shines through in every frame. Save for some sluggish melodrama after the first hour of the movie, “Fighting with My Family” is an uplifting story of family and is worth a look.

GRADE: B+

Cameron Hoover is a film critic. Contact him at [email protected]