Written and directed by Stephen Merchant and executive-produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Fighting With My Family is a match made in Norwich. Even if Merchant seems like an unlikely filmmaker to bring the story of WWE wrestler Paige to the big screen, that’s alright, because this is a terrific sports comedy about great things coming from unlikely places.
That said, Saraya (Florence Pugh) comes from the wrestling-obsessed Bevis family, and she and her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have performed in the ring with their mum and dad (Lena Headey and Nick Frost) since she was 13 years old. But after they’re given a shot at joining the NXT division for up-and-coming superstars, Saraya finds herself unwillingly growing apart from her loved ones.
Perhaps copping to his lack of wrestling knowledge, Merchant cameos early on in the film as a prospective in-law to Zak. When he and his screen wife Julia Davis show their complete ignorance of professional wrestling, the family is dumbstruck, especially after they intimate that the whole thing is somehow “fake”.
The distinction, of course, is that pro wrestling requires great athleticism, even if the competitive side of the sport is choreographed for entertainment purposes. In case I’ve managed to hide it so far, I’m no WWE expert, but that thing of “fixed not fake” really resonates in Fighting With My Family, mostly because all concerned have played an absolute blinder.
Without wandering too far away from the conventions of a Rocky movie, this is a film with boundless enthusiasm and a whole lot of laughs to support the genre tropes. A sure-fire sign of the film’s roaring success as a sports comedy is that it boasts a great Vince Vaughn performance, which feels like a rare thing these days, as he plays the composite character of Saraya’s mentor Hutch Morgan.
In the centre of it all, the sibling relationship between the film’s stars is what truly shines. The constantly impressive Pugh is magnificent in a more physical role than we’ve seen from her before, while Lowden grapples just as strongly with a role that could have come across as less sympathetic in other hands. Both are buffered by insecurity and frustrated expectations, but you root for their characters every step of the way.
Meanwhile, Merchant shows himself to be pretty adept at the whole sports comedy malarkey. Unsurprisingly, it’s a really funny film, with Frost and Headey earning the lion’s share of the laughs as unwaveringly supportive and over-zealous parents. But on top of that, the wrestling is well choreographed and shot, and the director certainly knows his way around old tropes like the sports montage and (brilliantly) some dog reaction shots.
In many ways, we’ve been waiting for a film like this since 2010’s Cemetery Junction, which he co-wrote and directed with Ricky Gervais. Taking sole credit this time around, Merchant’s follow-up shares that film’s warmth and effortlessly makes us think the best of its characters.
It certainly thinks the best of its executive producer. While it’s happily nothing like what this past awards season has immortalised as “the Brian May effect” and Johnson is rarely an unwelcome screen presence in any movie, his modest role as an interested bystander rarely gels with the rest of the film.
Even playing himself, his status as world’s biggest movie star is as much of a hindrance on screen as it was a massive advantage to the film’s production. With that in mind, it’s hard to begrudge any filmmaker for trying to squeeze more of The Rock into their relatively tiny, independent-spirited British comedy, especially when the result is this delightful.
With the real assist coming from all of the central performers, Fighting With My Family manages to be both hilarious and moving by turns. Warm and well-observed, it’s just the right film to take your mind off everything else and entertain you for 100 or so minutes. The outcome may be fixed, but not a moment of it feels fake.