So I’ll date myself right off the bat: My knowledge of pro wrestling basically begins with the Attitude Era in the late ’90s. The then-WWF (now WWE) was making what felt like a major push for visibility to compete with WCW, and the sensational bent of it all drew in a lot of kids my age as it was meant to. I’ve since lost the plots, mostly because I no longer live close enough to Paste’s own Jim Vorel to come over for pay-per-view events.
The whole enterprise is silly in exactly the kind of way that makes something ingenious. The dedication to kayfabe—a now pretty much discarded term for treating all character traits and plots and rivalries as straight-facedly real—is a more elaborate game of make-believe than the contortions we put ourselves through to insist to our children that Santa Claus is real, yet somehow more fun. It’s an art form that proudly plays to the cheap seats. For me, the most fun thing about it is seeing the conventions from that brand of storytelling make their way into other media, and seeing some of the performers pop up in movies.
In that regard, we’ve been lucky in recent years. Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista and John Cena have all been making appearances in movies and often proving themselves to be ringers. (You can skip Cena in The Marine, but Cockblockers was actually pretty funny.) Anybody who’s ever watched with any regularity knows, of course, that the physical training, the improvisation, the performance chops required to pull off such an event and sell it properly to all those marks out in the audience, all add up to a deeply demanding job.
I’m ashamed to say it surprised me a bit, even after his mastery of a goofy character like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax, that Dave Bautista turned in an unforgettable performance in Blade Runner 2049. I shouldn’t have been. He came out of a business that is based entirely on building a persona. He shows up for precisely one scene in Blade Runner, and the acting choices on display are fascinating.
In Fighting With My Family, the respect for that kind of multidisciplinary craft shines through.
Tasked with telling a scrappy underdog tale with a recognizable side of family drama, director Stephen Merchant (who also plays the role of a prim father-in-law to one of the main characters) sets the ground rules quickly. Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have grown up ensconced in the local wrestling scene, encouraged from a young age by their wrestler parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey playing their oblivious vulgarity to the hilt). We’re clued in to some of the lingo and the whole “isn’t it fake?” question gets brought up (it is fixed, not fake!), and then the siblings discover they have finally been noticed by the WWE.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a producer, so of course he’s going to show up to dispense some wisdom, mostly in one well-timed scene where his patience is eroded by inches as the two siblings fangirl all over him. Just be yourself, but dial it up to 11, he tells them, and it becomes the idea at the center of Saraya’s personal journey as she seeks to transform herself into Paige, a star worthy of being a WWE Diva.
Saraya and Zak, always inseparable, discover that they won’t be going to tryouts together. Vince Vaughn’s pitiless talent scout thinks Saraya has the gift and Zak doesn’t. She’s thrust into an intimidating talent pool for rough training and he retreats into bitterness at his lost opportunity.
Most of the movie focuses on Saraya getting over her fish-out-of-water feeling as she learns how to become a pro wrestler, as both an athlete and performer. The sequences where that performative aspect is the focus are by far the most interesting ones in the movie, and it’s clear why they decided to go with a heckler like Vaughn to play opposite the cast, picking apart their personas and trying to throw them off their game in between practicing routines in the ring and endurance trials.
It’s a shame, then, that we never get to see Saraya actually nail a performance anywhere in the film. Even on her final big night, in which she debuts and claims the belt from reigning Divas champ AJ Lee, we don’t get some kind of cathartic larger-than-life performance: She just freezes up again, but then wrestles her ass off. Based on a true story as it is, they do seem to stick mostly to the actual events of the 2014 match when Paige made her Divas debut, in which those stage jitters were a part of the act.
It’s a bit of a puzzling choice from a narrative perspective considering the film we just finished watching, since we’ve already seen very clearly that these are all fixed bouts and so, from our omniscient viewpoint must believe the two had the usual rehearsal beforehand. It’s equally disappointing that the movie didn’t go a little further and continue Paige’s story. At age 26, she’s had various ups and downs that have had her in and out of the ring, and now no longer wrestles after sustaining injuries in it. She’s still with WWE’s Smackdown, on screen but out of the ring, and not even 30 years old. It was clear her earlier story fit well into a biopic, though, what with the bemusing difference that for once, the humble mom and pop back home actually do want their kiddos to chase their big-city dreams.
Fighting With My Family feels of a piece with the WWE’s recent attempts to raise the profile of its female stars, coming as it does before this year’s Wrestlemania, which will feature the first women’s main event in the history of the whole damn event, with Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch topping the bill. It leads me to ask: Why aren’t we seeing other biopics about other WWE stars, and why isn’t WWE using its film studio to promote the brand rather than try to make a few vanity action projects for a few of its stars? A movie like that could even illuminate some things about the business, which would potentially attract some new marks to the show. The studio makes so many shameless cash-ins that Fighting with My Family feels like a rare, earnest offering. It honestly would interest me to see the same treatment for some of the industry’s other stars.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.