Wrestling has always had a complicated relationship with the movies. Despite both being driven by narratives and the fact that almost everything audiences see in either is scripted—or “fixed” as they say in Fighting with My Family—there has been a surprisingly small amount of crossover between the stories told in the arena and those told in the multiplex. For every wistful, highbrow-raised piece of fictional arthouse like The Wrestler, there are nine sequences similar to Hulk Hogan’s cameo in Rocky III as “Thunderlips.” Scenes that treat wrestling as a lark or a punchline, even when some of Hollywood’s biggest stars come from that world.
Well, Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family makes no bones, or for that matter rocks, about the latter. A handsomely crafted piece produced in part by WWE Studios, the film not so subtly acts as an advertisement for some of wrestling’s biggest stars of the last several decades, including the ever effervescent Dwayne Johnson, who cameos as himself. Yet what is more remarkable is at its heart, Merchant’s movie is better than just a successful hybrid of Hollywood and WWE gloss: it’s also an authentically effective biopic about retired WWE star Paige and all those who treat her world of spandex and spray-tans as more than just an amusement. It’s their life, and a sweetly celebrated one too.
Adapting from Paige’s life story, as well as a 2012 documentary that already detailed this journey, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, Merchant chronicles how before she was Paige, Saraya Bevis (Florence Pugh) grew up in a working class family in Norwich, England. As a group obsessed about wrestling since always, they even had their own local federation, the WAW, that was founded by Saraya’s father Patrick (Nick Frost). Within it he, wife and mother Julia (Lena Headey), also under the stage name “Saraya,” and brother Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden) all wrestled. Essentially a showcase for the family as well as their livelihood, it is also in the WAW where young Saraya finds herself initially reluctant to participate and then enthusiastic about being its rising star.
It’s likewise due to the WAW, and the family constantly mailing out tapes, that they get the attention of WWE talent scout and trainer Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). Coming to the UK to help promote a WWE event, Hutch invites both Zak and 18-year-old “Paige” (she picks her new arena name from her favorite TV show, Charmed) to a tryout with a bittersweet outcome: Hutch invites Paige to Florida to train under a WWE contract but sends Zak home empty-handed. What follows is a familiar Rocky-esque narrative about Paige becoming a wrestler worthy of being promoted from the WWE’s bush league “NXT” to WWE superstar status, as well as finding an unlikely mentor in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But there is something more tangible than that in the family fallout which comes with one child picked to ascend alone, thousands of miles away, while the other wallows in rejection and simmering resentment.
There is no denying that Fighting with My Family is the WWE-sanctioned version of events in Paige’s life. Always depicted as the golden city on a hill upon which Paige’s clan hopes to climb, WWE Studios presents a tangibly smoothed and edge-free version of itself. While Vaughn, in a composite role of several characters from Paige’s life, gets to channel a version of his hardass drill sergeant from Hacksaw Ridge, it is also like that scenery-chewing turn when he is revealed to have a heart of gold and is trying to make Paige see the big picture about her ambitions while helping Zak realize that his will never come true.
And indeed, Johnson himself appears as a literal posterchild for what succeeding in the WWE means… yet one with some genuine investment in this universe. More than many of his lighter action roles, even as a romanticized version of himself, Johnson palpably savors appearing in this film because he lived this journey as much as Paige. As a producer on the film, he apparently rallied to get it made after seeing Paige’s documentary and relating as the son of a long family of wrestlers.
That familial life is what elevates the picture. In the first biographical film of a superstar wrestler, Paige’s unique family unit is a cinematic treasure as portrayed by these four actors. In the role of Paige, Pugh continues to prove she is a star on the rise, imbuing her introverted Goth chic heroine with a mostly quiet fury and determination that constantly breaks above the waves of her general awkward demeanor. In training montages that have her cling to her leather jacket while surrounded by bikini-clad models in search of WWE fame, it is Pugh’s own star-quality that makes Paige’s eminence evident, even if her early instinct is to always drift toward the periphery.
It also plays well off Nick Frost and Lena Headey’s gregarious parents. With Frost especially having a basis of comedy similar to Merchant’s previous work (the writer-director was co-creator of the original The Office and Life’s Too Short), there is much situational comedy to be mined from Patrick being the diehard wrestling fan who realizes his daughter might actually succeed at being a professional WWE star. He and Headey have sterling comic timing and make a terrific tag-team of set-up and punchline delivery system, all while enjoying such chestnuts as, upon meeting prospective in-laws, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m going to have to go back to thieving.”
They’re also buoyed by a strong contrast between Paige’s struggling to come out of her shell in the ring and Zak accepting his future will exclude a WWE logo. As she climbs and stumbles, he falls down a rabbit hole of booze, pub fights, and a strained family life with his girlfriend and newborn child. The sensation of a dream deprived gives Fighting with My Family the bloody nose and tactile quality not found in the shinier elements of Paige’s Florida sojourn.
Ultimately, Fighting with My Family is a well-worn and appreciable Hollywood Cinderella story, yet one with jet black hair and a pierced lip. (And also one blessedly free of any mandated love interest.) Embracing the oddity of professional wrestling, it adds layers of reality to a dream come true fantasy, and provides wrestling fans with something increasingly unknown: legitimacy and even understanding. For that it is more than worth going to the mat over.