By now, it seems to be common knowledge that the professional wrestling matches put on by the WWE aren’t spontaneous events. The fight maneuvers are choreographed, the winner is decided beforehand and there continues to be discussion about whether or not wrestling is more of a sport or a form of performance art. But the openness of this secret has done little to reduce the WWE’s popularity — audiences remain willing to accept the artifice, as long as the joy they get from watching the matches remains real.
In line with this sentiment, writer-director Stephen Merchant’s “Fighting with My Family,” a biopic about WWE wrestler Saraya Bevis’ rise to fame, exemplifies the virtues of a good wrestling match. The movie is a decidedly by-the-numbers underdog story, complete with the motivational platitudes and training montages that audiences will have come to expect by now. But thanks to charismatic performances and a charmingly sincere tone, it’s easy to forgive this retreading of genre convention and cheer the film on as it makes its way to the big finish.
“Fighting with My Family” is based on the life story of Saraya “Paige” Bevis (Florence Pugh), who comes from a family of professional wrestlers in Norwich, England. When she and her brother Zac (Jack Lowden) try out for the WWE, only Saraya is signed — causing a rift between the siblings that Saraya must wrestle with (literally) as she struggles through her training in America and eventually reaches her dream of WWE fame.
Saraya manages to be a sympathetic protagonist, thanks to an engaging performance from Florence Pugh. The character is painted with the same strokes as other “tomboys” from cinematic past — a spunky Goth who begrudgingly resents the fact that she’s “not like the other girls” at WWE boot camp — but Pugh portrays Saraya’s loneliness and deep love for her family with enough candor to separate her from her counterparts. Audiences will be endeared as Saraya finds her confidence and learns to open up to others, and they’ll cheer on cue as she gains her prescribed climactic victory.
But Pugh is not the cast’s only standout. Vince Vaughn does a great job flexing his dramatic muscles as Paige’s coach Hutch Morgan, whose regular insults to the cohort of WWE hopefuls also allow Vaughn to employ some of his signature snark and comedic timing. Lena Headey is also a delight as Saraya’s mother Julia Bevis, dishing out pain in the wrestling ring and later turning on the waterworks at the airport when her baby girl leaves for America. And of course, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson (who also produced the film) shows up a few times to cameo as himself, satirizing his own “nice guy” image and throwing out trite sentiments like “Don’t be the next me. Be the first you.”
The film stresses the centrality of her family in Paige’s effort to “be the first her,” so it’s fitting that the family dynamic is one of the film’s strongest elements. The clash between Paige and her brother gives the film emotional stakes, while the family’s unconventionality allows for some “Addams Family”-esque instances of cheeky fish-out-of-water humor. A scene where the Bevises entertain another family for dinner is a great use of this premise, as the guests goggle at the Bevis parents’ willingness to discuss Ricky’s (Nick Frost) time in prison and say “cock” at the dinner table. This lampooning of the family’s break from social norms works because it is celebratory, never condemnatory; other cheaper gags, including an early one where Ricky hits a fellow wrestler in the balls a few times, don’t quite hit the same mark.
But by and large, “Fighting with My Family” hits the mark more than it misses, guiding its protagonist to her athletic ascendancy with heart, humor and ease. Yes, it’s very easy from the start to see where the film’s story will end up, even if you’ve never heard of the real “Paige” — all of the film’s hits, misses and punchlines are clearly delineated ahead of time. But the film makes up for its predictability with the sheer amount of joy it inspires. Just like watching a choreographed WWE match, watching our hero fake-fight her way to victory is an unparalleled blast — as long as you’re willing to suspend disbelief.
Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].