Fighting With My Family – a review

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The story leans too heavily on a brother-sister tussle

Fighting for My family is what’s categorised in the business as ‘feel good’ film, but as this one aims for comedy, at least, that’s how it is promoted, you could describe it as a ‘Feel Goofy Movie’. In that ambition, it succeeds. In a number of other places it falls down.

The story is based on the real-life Jade-Bevis family of Norwich, ‘England’, as Americans have to add, who turned their world around from mentally scarred survivors to hard working winners by joining their local wrestling club, eventually touring the circuit and scraping a decent living out of it.

The father had been in prison, the mother a junkie, the son in trouble with the law, only the two daughters were well-adjusted enough to seek a career on leaving school. One daughter became a dentist, she not depicted in the film. The other, Saraya-Jade Bevis, Paige in the story, heroine of the tale, stayed clean, making it as a top class winner – in wrestling. The story is in the film’s title, Fighting With My Family.

Dwayne Johnson, aka ‘The Rock’ – one of Hollywood’s highest paid action stars and known as Mr Nice Guy in the industry, is the film’s main producer. He has two pivotal scenes, one at the start, one near the end, book-ending the tale. Johnson was filming the latest Fast & Furious carnut tyre screamer in the UK when he saw the Channel 4 documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family” on his hotel room television, and was duly impressed by the crazy life of an English family of wrestlers.

Interviewed about his generosity in getting the project financed, he said the ‘underdog’ aspect of it appealed to him. He contact British writer Stephen Merchant about developing the story into a feature-length biopic.

Merchant was the co-author with Ricky Gervais of the wildly successful The Office, and then Extras where he played Gervais’s befuddled agent. He also plays Hugh in the film, the prim and proper father to the girlfriend of Paige’s brother, Zak, he betrothed mainly because she’s many months pregnant.

Incidentally, as readers can see from the photograph below, Merchant is two inches taller than ‘The Rock’ making Johnson six feet three. Johnson knew Merchant from their time together in Tooth Fairy (2010). As the saying goes, it’s who you know.

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Merchant and The Rock – as odd a couple as the family itself

Stephen Merchant as writer-director is smart enough to entice one fine actress to take part, one on her way up, probably while she was in a ‘why not?’ mood between bigger projects. He made a good choice. Florence Pugh is far more interesting to watch than the wrestling matches, or the Bevis family shenanigans, genuinely funny as they are in a knockabout way.

She came to prominence with a stunning portrayal of a tricky character in the macabre period drama Lady Macbeth (2016). What no one could predict was her jump to Hollywood  would  come by appearing in a wrestling film that happened to have much of its action set in Florida. I expected her next role to be in crinoline.

Her rise is well timed – the times right for films starring and driven by women. I applaud this trend so long as the men are not depicted as losers and idiots, rather like they are in television commercials, a reversal of misogyny.

The story is conventional on many levels despite its wrestling theme, or perhaps because of it. Saraya (Paige – her wrestling name) is much like her down-to-earth parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), who collect the flotsam and jetsam of humanity from around town in their white van, picking up local talent to teach tag tussling in the ring. As a youth, Saraya shows great promise fighting boys. Her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) is an even bigger wrestling fan than she is, bouncing off the ropes in spandex and adopting the moniker “Zodiac.”

Frost and Headey make a good double act if not always given enough good lines to crack. They are equally profane, tempted to fall into childish pranks whenever the mood takes them. Like the real family, Saraya and Zak’s father served time in prison for what he describes as “violence, mostly,” now using wrestling as if a religion, keen to teach kids all the moves. Zak folows suit, a semi-professional teaching amateurs. In time he has to make a choice between his wife and new baby and a career in wrestling.

When the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) holds tryouts in London, Saraya joins Zak in competing, assuming that her more passionate sibling will land a gig. But as it turns out, only Saraya gets to progress to the next stage: a WWE developmental league in Orlando, Florida. There, she adopts the stage name Paige, and comes under the guidance of a sterner father figure, a coach named Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), who plays the tough army sergeant role.

From then on, Paige’s life is full of ups and downs and some loneliness, (sequences I recognised from my full-time stay in Hollywood), any idea of a fantasy life of a star soon knocked out of her literally and figuratively.

In the end, she perseveres and reaches the big night, the televised championship final. By this point she has ditched her faux blond hairstyle and adopted the Goth look that made the real Paige different and famous.

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Lena Heady and Nick frost make a good double act, but it’s Florence Pugh you watch

Fighting With My Family is a standard sports biopic, following the real-life WWE Paige from her humble beginnings in Norwich to international fame. There are no surprises. Merchant’s dialogue entrenched in domesticity is bouncy and nonjudgmental but his screenplay has a soggy centre.

The problem is, the film is really a television drama. For all its large cast, the scale is modest. Merchant does a very good job of pairing scenes down to the bone, a skill gleaned from his television comedies, but allows sentimentality to get in the way of tension. He is as much concerned with Zak’s dilemma as Paige’s, but Zak isn’t half as interesting as Paige as a character study. Just as we get caught up in a sequence involving Paige in Florida we cut back to Zak in Norwich. This happens a lot and drags the drama.

Nubile young girls, ‘models and actresses’ proliferate the plot. They switch from admiration of Paige’s limey accent and confidence, to resenting her presence, and then back again to cheering her on in her hour of need. The obvious rehearsed theatrics of WWE bouts is touched upon in one sentence and then laid to rest, but despite broken bones and bruises, the emphasis is on ‘entertainment’ rather than serious wrestling in the Greek tradition. Moreover, there’s just a feeling we are watching one long brand advert on behalf of the sport and its governing body. As a result, the film struggles to dramatize Paige’s triumph as anything but preordained.

We get a lot of Page’s insecurities, her brother’s disappointments, and stock characters in a sub-Dickensian short story. I wanted to know more about the politics of the game, how a young girl could get so far and not ever be propositioned or treated with disdain.

The film’s biggest asset is Pugh, an extraordinarily compelling talent, quite beatific one minute, podgy adolescent the next. Sheer athletic grace is the main ingredient of any sports movie, and by the halfway mark Pugh manages to have us believe she has it in bucket loads. For such a fine actress her role is no challenge. The script never quite gives her the meaty moments she deserves. 

  • Star Rating: Three stars
  • Cast: Florence Pugh, Dwayne Johnson, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn
  • Director: Stephen Merchant
  • Writer: Stephen Merchant
  • Cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin
  • Composer: Vik Sharma
  • Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?
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