Fighting With My Family (Cert 12A)
US/UK (2019) Dir. Stephen Merchant
It’s tough being a knowledgeable fan of the subject of a biopic, as it requires the special skill to divorce oneself from being irked by the liberties taken with the story and the inaccuracy of the details and accept you are watching a dramatisation. Case in point: Fighting With My Family, the story of wrestler Saraya-Jade Bevis aka WWE’s Paige.
Born into a family of wrestlers – father Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost), mother Julia “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headly), and brothers Roy (James Burrows) and Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden) – it was inevitable Saraya-Jade aka “Brittani” (Florence Pugh) would also get in the ring. She was eventually bitten by the bug and became a star attraction in her parents’ promotion WAW in Norwich.
When WWE came over for a UK tour, Saraya-Jade and Zak were invited to take part in a tryout session with other UK wrestlers, with Saraya-Jade the only one to pass. Zak not making it leads to disappointment and resentment, but whilst he is struggling with this, Saraya-Jade, now renamed Paige is struggling with the training in the US and being away from her family.
Pretty much every “rags to riches” journey you’ve ever read but in this instance, it is actually true. Stephen Merchant’s script obviously gives it a bit of a sheen to make it accessible as a drama and does a good job of covering most of the essential facts along the way.
I’ll make the pledge now not to get too bogged down with what was changed, omitted, or just plain wrong – there is a lot – but will warn fellow wrestling nerds that whilst the curtain is pulled back to reveal some of the inner workings of how wrestling and WWE works, a lot of the changes and conflation of incidents are in the name of expedience as this is only 108 minutes long and not a 10 hour fly-on-the-wall series.
For instance, the trainer from NXT is Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), a composite of NXT trainer Matt Bloom, talent scout Canyon Ceman and Triple H. Also, Paige’s fellow rookie women – Jeri-Lynn (Kim Matula), Kirsten (Aqueela Zoll) and Maddison (Ellie Gonsalves) – represent the model types from non-wrestling backgrounds like Summer Rae, Audrey Marie, et al, so no ersatz Bayley, Sasha Banks, or Charlotte Flair here.
However their roles are important in highlighting the issue of how women’s wrestling was – and in some cases still is – perceived as fan service for the guys with a focus on sex appeal and not wrestling ability. This has changed dramatically and Paige was a major catalyst in this with her pale, gothic looks and in-ring ability. The script goes to great lengths to differentiate the attitudes of someone who grew up in the business and those coming to it from the outside.
The drama is split between Paige trying to fit in with the models in the US with Zak going off the rails in the UK, fighting his own battle with his continuing disappointment at his little sister stealing his dream. For us Brits, there is an odd, relatable comfort in seeing the humble, run down, working class estates of Norwich when interspersed with the beaches of sunny Florida and tanned bodies of the wrestlers.
We can also see that wrestling is a sport that requires heart and dedication regardless of where it emanates from; if anything there is more inspiration to come from the blind student Zak teaches (and now a pro!) and the kids who cheer him on, than the snarky, back biting and vanity of the glossier NXT school. Whether this film inspires people to aim for the WWE it could just as easily inspire them to just get in the ring.
Regarding the dramatic licence leeway we are required to accept, the most contentious would be Paige’s hasty leap to the top, ignoring her being the first ever NXT women’s champion. However, this was deliberate to make her main roster debut and Divas title win over AJ Lee (Thea “Zelina Vega” Trinidad) the crowd pleasing moment to close the film on.
Putting that and a few anachronisms aside, Merchant crafts his script with sufficient faithfulness to the general facts to satiate picky sods like me and make it palatable for casual fans and non-wrestling audiences. A little like Bohemian Rhapsody, ending with Paige’s triumph is satisfactory and celebratory as a feel good conclusion, although possibly why her unfortunate retirement from a neck injury in 2018 aged just 26 isn’t mentioned in the postscript.
Known for highbrow thespian roles like Lady Macbeth, Florence Pugh seems like an odd choice to play Paige but she is very good, capturing the spirit of a sympathetic underdog. She also does a decent take on Paige’s voice for added verisimilitude, whilst bouncing naturally off her co-stars, from comedian Nick Frost to impressive rising star Jack Lowden, and even The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), who co-produced the film.
For the in-ring action, which is replicated exceptionally both in the training sessions and proper matches, Pugh does a lot of the close-up stuff and basics but the heavy lifting is handled by current Impact Wrestling star Tessa Blanchard. Wrestling fans should also look out for cameos by Big Show, Sheamus, The Miz, as well as the odd British face in the UK based scenes like Dave Mastiff and Justin Sysum.
Merchant’s direction is pretty safe, staying within the conventions of commercial product, noticeable in the wrestling segments where he borrows heavily from the Book of Sports Movie Clichés, using slow motion for the big bumps and slams. The humorous streak is a great leveller to offset the drama, mostly successful when involving the Knight Family.
It is unlikely Fighting With My Family will be confused with The Wrestler but is thankfully no Ready To Rumble either! With its inspirational story, strong cast, and earthy humour, there is no reason not to have a kick-ass time with this film!
Rating – ****
Man In Black