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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: Fighting with My Family

The Strange but Charming True Story of a Professional Wrestling Family from England

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 22, 2019 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama • Running Time: 108 minutes • Director: Stephen Merchant • Writer: Stephen Merchant • Cast: Florence Pugh, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Based on the documentary of the same name, "Fighting with My Family" tells the stranger-than-fiction true story of professional wrestling's "Knight" family. (Like almost everything else in wrestling, "Knight" isn't their real name – "Bevis" doesn't sound quite as catchy though.) They're a ragtag group of misfits that run a small independent wrestling organization in Norwich, England called World Association of Wrestling (WAW). It is literally a mom-and-pop shop. The parents, Ricky and Julia (Nick Frost and Lena Headey), are the promoters and wrestlers. Their son Zak (Jack Lowden) also wrestles. (Another son, Roy, is a wrestler too – but he's in prison for most of the film.) Saraya (Florence Pugh) joins the family business at the ridiculously young age of 13. She would eventually attain worldwide fame as Paige in WWE, but before that, she wrestled as a child under the name Britani Knight. To show just how deeply passionate – and obsessed – wrestlers can be, Saraya was actually named after her mum's in-ring character, Sweet Saraya. 

Eventually, both Saraya and Zak are invited to attend a WWE tryout. There, they memorably run into The Rock (Dwayne Johnson). Did this really happen? As The Rock might say, IT DOESN'T MATTER if it really happened! Whether the scene is factual or fabricated, it gives Johnson an excuse to cut a classic Rock promo. That's a good enough reason for me! (The Rock was instrumental in getting in this movie made and released.)

The tryout is coached by a former wrestler named Hutch (Vince Vaughn, playing a slightly gentler version of his drill sergeant character from "Hacksaw Ridge"). Hutch was created for the movie but serves as a stand-in for various real-life coaches and wrestlers. His backstory suspiciously resembles Mick Foley, who famously threw himself off the roof of the "Hell in a Cell" cage. However, unlike Hutch, Foley actually became a star. More likely, the Hutch character is meant to represent journeymen dreamers like Jimmy Jacobs and B.J. Whitmer – who almost killed themselves in an insane cage match at a show called "Supercard of Honor II" in front of a few hundred people (I was there, and it was one of the damnedest things I've ever seen) – and many others like them.

As wrestling fans already know, Saraya is chosen and Zak is not. This leads to resentment and a downward spiral for Zak, while Saraya deals with the culture shock of moving from England to America – specifically from drab, grey Norwich to bright, sunny Florida. At the WWE training camp, the newly christened Paige – named after her favorite character from the TV show "Charmed" – feels like a "freak" next to the other female trainees, all of whom are "Barbie doll" models and cheerleaders. While the women in the movie are fictionalized, they accurately represent WWE's hiring practices at the time. 

Even though some characters and elements are fictionalized, and some aspects of what actually happened are shifted around or combined to tell a cleaner story, "Fighting with My Family" is the rare biopic that is almost entirely factual. 

Florence Pugh is so good in her role that I often forgot I wasn't watching the real Paige. Jack Lowden excels at the difficult task of conveying Zak's disappointment, bitterness, and broken dreams. He's "the heavy" of the film in the way, and not always likable, but he never loses his humanity. Nick Frost and Lena Headey are precious as their parents, especially Frost, who talks about his character's prison time in such a casual, matter-of-fact way – as if it's no different or less ordinary than toasting bread for breakfast. Also look for writer-director Stephen Merchant in a small but priceless role (Julia Davis, who plays his wife, is also a standout). Thea Trinidad (WWE's Zelina Vega) plays AJ Lee in the film's climactic scene, and eagle-eyed wrestling fans will enjoy spotting other blink-and-you'll-miss-it wrestler cameos. Rest assured that no wrestling knowledge is required to enjoy this film. (After all, did you know anything about Jamaican bobsleds before or after watching "Cool Runnings"?) Silver Screen Sister, who doesn't know Hulk Hogan from the Incredible Hulk, absolutely adored watching this. So did I. Paige's journey is a great underdog story, period.

"Fighting with My Family" is funny, quirky, sweet, and heartfelt. It will end up being one of the year's best films.