Largely based on the Max Fisher’s 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, the film Fighting With My Family – directed by Stephen Merchant (Logan, The Office) – could easily be mistaken as just a biopic about WWE professional wrestler and superstar Paige. Thankfully, there’s more to the story than just body slams and the usual sport-movie cliches. Here is a film about a family of wrestlers chasing their dreams and doing everything they can to make ends meet, all the while dealing with everyday issues and problems most of us can identify with. There’s real heart and emotion as we watch this group of flawed athletes inspire us with their struggles, hard work and family love.
The story starts in Norwich, England with Young Zak (Thomas Whilley) watching a wrestling match and quickly getting into a fight with his sister, Young Saraya (Tori Ellen Ross), after she comes into the room and changes the channel to watch the TV show Charmed. Their father (Nick Frost) walks in on them and instead of breaking up the fight, provides his son tips on how to properly apply a wrestling technique to his sister. This sets the tone for the family dynamic that is wonderfully played out throughout the film.
Years later, 18-year-old Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) has grown up to become a wrestling trainer for kids alongside her brother, Zak Knight (Jack Lowden), and is part of the family wrestling business where they participate in wrestling matches with their father, Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and mother, Julia Knight (Lena Headey). This close-knit family dynamic changes when Zak gets his girlfriend Courtney (Hannah Rae) pregnant and organizes a dinner for his parents to meet Courtney’s posh parents. It’s during this dinner the family receives a phone call that promises to change their lives forever: both Saraya and Zak have been invited to a tryout for WWE.
At the tryout both siblings do their best to prove their worth to WWE Trainer, Hutch (Vince Vaughn). It’s also here where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who produces the film, as well as plays himself) shows up to provide inspirational and real-world advice for the budding wrestlers, showing them exactly what a life in the ring looks – and feels – like. After a grueling series of punishing tests only Saraya is accepted to go to NXT in Florida to continue training for a chance at being a professional wrestler in WWE.
From here starts the real trial not just for Saraya, who must push herself in order to pass her training and overcome her self-doubt, but also for a depressed Zak who becomes jealous after rejection by Hutch and his sister’s success. This quickly becomes a journey that shows the highs and lows the Knight family experiences as their lives change dramatically with the rise of a new wrestling star.
With near-perfect casting, the performances across the board are fantastic. Florence Pugh is amazing as a strong, yet vulnerable young woman chasing her dream of becoming a professional wrestler in the WWE. With wrestling being such a major part of her – and her family’s – life – she is considered “weird” compared to other young women her age. Despite the tough persona she presents to the world, deep down inside she wants to belong to something special and do right by those who love her. One of those obstacles she must overcome is her own flawed nature and it’s inspiring to watch her dig deep and push forward to achieve her dreams while still being a part of her family.
Jack Lowden is brilliantly intense as the jealous brother struggling to find his purpose in life after realizing his dreams of joining the WWE will never happen. As a young new father he’s at first happy for his young sister’s opportunity, but later becomes a vessel filled with jealousy, rage and frustration. He’s easily the most complex character in the family and Lowden gives a relatable performance that puts us through the full spectrum of human emotions.
Pugh and Lowden are complemented with amazingly funny and moving performances from Nick Frost and Lena Headey. They are eccentric and loving parents with felonious backgrounds who provide many of the film’s best moments and are over-the-top and passionate about wrestling, while still doing their best to provide for their family. They can come across a bit capitalistic as they attempt to cash in on their daughter’s newfound success, but they genuinely want their children to be happy and to have a better life. The chemistry between them is genuine and, despite the crazy environment that the Knight family creates, feels entirely natural.
Director Stephen Merchant – who also plays Hugh, the posh father – wonderfully balances a story that is – what I consider – the perfect mix of humor and drama. There are several moments of comedy gold with witty dialogue that is amped up with clashes between the posh and not-so-posh as well as English vs American culture. But the comedy is sprinkled on a solid base of real drama and situations we all relate to, such as worrying about how we are going to pay the bills, chasing your dreams, fighting with family members and being able to deal with life changes. All of this somehow works to create a movie that feels like something very special.
Even though this is a fantastic film there are a couple of issues that tarnish it a little. The first and most noticeable one is that Florence Pugh doesn’t have the muscular/athletic physique I’d expect from a wrestling athlete. Her character has supposedly been wrestling for five years prior to trying out for the WWE, yet during scenes of her going through rigorous physical training – not unlike military training or even a Rocky/Creed montage – she looks like a normal person. I’m not trying to gripe, but this disparity quickly becomes obvious whenever she’s paired onscreen next to anyone who’s clearly lived the athletic life.
The second criticism I have is that key points of this “true story” are factually inaccurate. I’m not someone who watches wrestling but I was so intrigued about Paige’s story that after the film I looked more into her career and watched the real fight this film climaxes on. Learning that some of the more important plot points weren’t accurate was very disappointing and took away from the story I had just watched. This is particularly grating when these events are presented as factual and can very quickly be discredited with a quick Google search.
Despite a few issues that slightly tarnish the fun, Fighting With My Family is still a wonderfully funny and moving story that is inspiring to watch. It also manages to rise above the cliches present in so many sports films, yet at the same time delivering a heartfelt look at the risks and sacrifices needed to make it in the world of competitive athletics – even a supposedly “fake” one like wrestling. Even if you’re not that big a wrestling fan or couldn’t tell one character from the next, you’ll most likely enjoy the saga of Paige and her wild family as much as I did. Make sure you stay around and watch the credit sequence as you’ll be rewarded with footage of the real Knight family and realize that many moments from the film were stunning recreations.