Directed By Stephen Merchant
Starring – Florence Pugh, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey
The Plot – A heartwarming comedy based on the incredible true story of WWE Superstar Paige . Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige (Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for World Wrestling Entertainment. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training program, she must leave her family and face this new, cut-throat world alone. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep, fight for her family, and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star.
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, adult language throughout, some violence and drug content
– Captures the true essence of wrestling, both inside and out of the ring. It’s no surprise that a film like this is a commercial for the WWE brand, but in doing so the film has the right framing in the phenomenon of its product, as well as the passion involved with living this lifestyle that makes it anything but glamorous. At its core, the life of a professional wrestler is lonely, painful, and often times impossible because of the limited few who make it, and Paige’s story is the embodiment of all of these ingredients, fleshing out a narrative in which fans and non-fans of the sport can come together to embrace a true underdog on the silver screen, for only the first time since 2009’s “The Wrestler” brought gravity to a sport that is pre-determined.
– Surreal casting. Props in this department not only go to the director Stephen Merchant for doing his homework on the essential characters in this story, but also to casting director Shaheen Baig for calling on some pretty big names to render the synthetics of their real life counterparts. When I say that Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, and of course Florence Pugh emulate the look and feel of this family perfectly, I mean it in a sense that they immersed themselves in each role, leaving fans who are familiar with the Knight family feeling eerily satisfied with just how deep the film goes to master everything from personalities to movements in the ring. It gives the film a transcendent quality on the screen that was previously seen in the documentary of the same name, but made even more impressive considering this is Hollywood elite who are donning the roles.
– Constant professionalism in performance work. Speaking of this talented cast, the energy they dedicate to the film pays off immensely for the believability, as well as the underlying longing of each sibling that is pulled from them brilliantly by Pugh and Lowden respectively. In Pugh’s Paige, the actress channels enough heart in bravery for being in a foreign land, and blends it superbly with the little girl fan inside her who is screaming in agony for not capitalizing in the way she thought she inevitably would. There’s enough humility to her performance to make this anything but a predictably conventional protagonist, adding layers to pre-conceived notions of wrestlers that give poignancy to unfamiliar audiences with the craft itself. Vince Vaughn is also a scene-stealer here, bringing a stern hand of authority to the humor we’ve come to expect from him, and harvesting it into this character whose intentions are honorable, but is also someone who has no problem breaking a person down mentally to reach their limit. For my money however, it’s Lowden who steals the show, riding Zack’s highs and lows that forces the character through an identity crisis of sorts, in that he swallows through the inevitability of his dream never fully coming true. Lowden’s wave of emotional instability brings a lot of intensity to scenes that would otherwise fall flat, and he’s an actor who I’ve only seen three times, but with each role confirms the lock he has on resiliency that makes him a thrill to watch.
– Juggling tones. The atmosphere in this film masters two exponentially different attitudes for the price of one, in comedy and drama, and accomplishes each of them tremendously without ever combining them as a cliche hybrid that we’ve come to expect. For the first half of the movie, this is very much a comedy, full of snappy dialogue and vibrant personality to bring forth more than a few hearty burst of laughter, but once it all settles down, the impact of dramatic tension lends itself to some very gripping scenes involving envy, isolation, and of course polarization, to give the screenplay depth. What’s important is that neither of these directions ever step on or compromise the other, giving the film plenty of time for you to indulge and feast on this circus under one roof, before the actions of the animals bite you in retaliation, and it proves that “Fighting With My Family” has enough heart and humor to flesh out a surprisingly moving narrative that is too infectious to ignore.
– Anything but a paint-by-numbers biopic. Beyond this feeling like a greatest hits collection of Paige’s most important moments, the film instills enough curveballs in the progression of the protagonist to make her conflict feel anything but temporary. In addition to this, the decision to make this film a sort of dual narrative of sorts, with Zack’s story feeling every bit as important as Paige’s, pays off tremendously for the shelf life of the respective plots, and reminds us of the importance of not only the film’s central protagonist, but that of the people who make her who she is. Imagine if “Bohemian Rhapsody” actually took the time to get to know the members of Queen, instead of just its flamboyant frontman. It would give the screenplay enough variety to keep it far from the outlines of conformity that unfortunately too many biopics become saddled with today, and this gleaming benefit keeps us firmly invested into even the more well known angles of Paige’s story, giving nuance to the kind of emotions and bitter pill’s the 20 year old was forced to taste.
– Rapid fire pacing. If this film has done just one thing better than the other twenty films that I have seen this year, it’s in the fluid pacing of 102 vitally important minutes that never waste an opportunity in adding something to the story. Considering this is a film revolving around something as redundant as wrestling, the film surprisingly masters a lot of complexity not only with its filmmaking, but also in the knowledge of the sport itself, with how it’s very much teaching the audience at the same time it is teaching the students of the game. There was never a point during the film where I was even remotely bored, despite knowing a majority of the results in Paige’s struggle. It caps off a command by Merchant that shows his passion for the sport and filmmaking alike, and it makes for as easy of a sit as you’re going to get for something that never feels the weight of its minutes.
– Production value between worlds. Merchant’s biggest gain as a director in this film deals with his capabilities in comparing and contrasting the worlds of big league and independent wrestling that articulately channel the desperation of the two ambitious students. When we’re in the independent world, the angles are claustrophobic, dimly lit, and full of cheap effect smoke to give the complete picture a very small stage essence. Yet when the WWE appears, we get these beautifully vibrant sets, with no shortage of professional lighting to tie it all together. The greatest strength a film can have in dealing with two worlds is to compare them side-by-side, and in doing so it visually channels the uphill climb, all the while selling the spectacle that many have fallen in love with.
– Incorrect sequencing of timeline events. There were a few nagging instances I caught where the film mishandled the years of important events not only in wrestling, but also in pop culture. There are small things from the movie mentioning “The Hunger Games” movie, which came out in 2012, despite the fact that Paige’s story takes place in 2010. There are also big things that only wrestling fans like myself would notice, like a pivotal John Cena title win shown that didn’t take place until 2013. These are the kind of constant time frame errors that I often look for in movies with a particular time designation, and as it turns out this one missed a lot in the mentions that it tries to so cleverly slip by its audience. If you’re going to do something right, check for continuity, otherwise remove any mention of events you’re too lazy to look up.
– Time is a construct. Days, weeks, months, years. I mention these because the film has no need to inform the audience on how much time has passed. Why is that important? Because it helps illustrate not only how long Paige has been apart from her family, but also how long she has fought in winning over her peers during her time in NXT. Speaking of which, the NXT area of the film is so trimmed down and confined that it doesn’t capture Paige’s pivotal Women’s Title win, nor does it articulate how and why she endears herself with the fans. It leaves a noticeable gap late in the movie that makes her jump to WWE feels spontaneous instead of earned, and this is the area more than any that could use more clarity, as well as more time to better convey the passing of time, to which the movie has none of.
– Sloppy final sequence. This will only appeal to wrestling audiences like myself, who are bothered by the little things. In this regard, it’s during Paige’s title match against A.J Lee, where not only are the wardrobe choices by both wrestlers terribly wrong in every imaginable way of fashion, not only is Lee’s bodyguard Tamina missing from the scene, not only is the choreography of the match completely off from the real life match itself, but also the editing is done in a way where Paige wasn’t already extremely popular with audiences before she defeated Lee. This gives the sequence a manipulative presence, orchestrating itself to convenience of a plot device that it strictly didn’t need, and gives a phony feeling to the production during this area of the film that was otherwise remarkable up to this point. Even WWE Films apparently doesn’t watch their product. Can’t say I blame them.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-