There are so many inspirational dramedies about scrappy dreamers from struggling, working class British towns trying to succeed in a field that’s foreign to their environment, that they can be classified as their own sub-genre. The specific goal differs between art/performance—Billy Elliot, The Commitments—and sports—Eddie the Eagle. (And occasionally it’s to show your junk to a bunch of thirsty women, Full Monty style.) Fighting with My Family hits a combo deal, since the dream of protagonists Saraya (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) is to become the next big stars of pro wrestling, itself both sport and performance. The siblings have been primed pretty much since birth by their wrestling-obsessed parents, Julia (Lena Headey) and Ricky (Nick Frost), to prepare for their eventual stardom.
This easygoing and heartwarming tale, based on a true story, begins with Saraya and Zak as children, engaging in the expected sibling activity of beating each other up over something trivial. Instead of breaking it up, Julia and Ricky give pointers to make the fight more exciting. Hey, at the very least it’s a good idea to teach your kids to defend themselves, with some showmanship as bonus. Cut to Saraya and Zak in their late teens, giving wrestling lessons to disenfranchised kids during the day, and “fighting” in the ring in the evening for an audience of ten as part of their parents’ financially struggling wrestling organization. The classes, where the duo keeps a teen out of a life of drugs and even teaches a blind kid how to kick ass, initially feel like dirty storytelling tricks used by writer/director Stephen Merchant to get us to easily fall in love with the protagonists, yet apparently the details of these classes were taken from real life. (And what really happened to the blind kid deserves its own movie.)
After the family sends their audition tape to WWE for years, they finally get a call from a no-nonsense recruiter named Hutch (Vince Vaughn), who invites Saraya and Zak to a tryout. Even though both do their best, Hutch picks only Saraya, now with the wrestling name Paige, to advance to a rigorous training program in Florida. Devastated by the rejection, Zak tries to emotionally support his sister’s success, but dives further and further into depression. Meanwhile, Paige suffers from an identity crisis as the mentally and physically taxing training gives her second thoughts about whether or not she’s doing this for herself or for her family.
Usually in these films, the conflict comes from the protagonists’ surroundings, from friends and family who think they suffer from silly pipe dreams and try to force them to face grim reality. By flipping the script and having their surrounding influences be almost abrasively supportive, Merchant puts the focus more on the internal conflict and questions about the meaning of success and failure. (No easy answers are provided.) For Zak, not getting to do something he prepared for his entire life stings, but he gradually begins to understand how much of a positive influence he can be. A line spoken during an argument between Zak and Saraya about what success truly means might sound like something from a workplace poster featuring a cat and a tree branch, but it’s also a slice of sobering reality. On the other end of the spectrum, Saraya comes face-to-face with the overwhelming responsibility of success, and quickly realizes that she’ll have to pace herself in order to carry the burden of heavy work and dedication needed to sustain that success. Most think reaching their dream job as the end of the line when it’s really the beginning of a harder and potentially much longer race.
With a narrative that adheres to such universal themes, Merchant reaches beyond the film’s wrestling fan core audience and constructs an inspiring story everyone can enjoy. One doesn’t have to care about pro wrestling to be engaged with the interconnected stories of the siblings. This also has a lot to do with the natural performances from the young actors. Florence Pugh is a gem here—the glue that holds the film together. Along with Pugh, Jack Lowden is tasked with carrying the story’s dramatic heft, and just as with his character, he has his co-star’s back.
Dwayne Johnson is one of the film’s producers, so it should come as no surprise that the film portrays pro wrestling as grueling work and not just roided-up theater. The series of training montages are nothing we haven’t seen before, but Merchant manages to keep things fresh with character-based subversion of expectations. For example, when Saraya initially feels threatened by a trio of hot models who are trying to break into wrestling, priming the audience to expect the models’ behavior to serve as obstacle and motivation for Saraya, Merchant introduces a nice twist on this trope, instead.
I just wish Merchant applied this originality to the anti-climactic finale. Of course this all culminates in the “big match,” with the family rooting for Saraya to make history. The problem is that the audience knows pro wrestling isn’t real—the movie itself has shown us how staged it all is during the training sequences—yet the final match is structured as if no one’s supposed to know the outcome. This bit of formula-associated dissonance aside, Merchant’s experience of balancing comedy and drama as Ricky Gervais’ partner for almost two decades otherwise pays off to create a genial mix of irreverent humor and positive reinforcement.
Director: Stephen Merchant
Writer: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Release Date: February 22, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.