For many, Saturday afternoons in the 70s and 80s meant watching men with names such as Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks sweatily body slamming and pinning each other to the canvas in the wrestling ring. I’m not sure why it lost its appeal but maybe it’s time for a resurgence. Emlyn’s choice of film for March is a family film based around World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE as it is now commonly referred to.
The inspirational underdog sports movie is a familiar, tried and true template that pretty much everyone recognises, but that doesn’t mean it can’t surprise us every now and then – as is the case in Fighting With My Family, which takes the formula and applies it to pro wrestling, a sport we very rarely see on screen. And happily, it’s an absolute delight, with a bunch of winning performances, a great sense of humour and an overabundance of charm.
The true story of a family of wrestlers from Norwich, it’s the unlikely tale of Paige (real name Saraya), who works in the family company putting on shows for the locals with her brother Zak “Zodiac”, father Rowdy Ricky and mother Julia / “Sweet Saraya”. It’s her and Zak’s dream to break out of the independent circuit and join the WWE – but when the opportunity to try out comes along, it doesn’t go as they’d hoped, with only Saraya being signed, which causes friction within the family.
One of the really nice things about the movie is that, as funny as it is (and it is very funny indeed, courtesy of a script by writer/director Stephen Merchant, pictured left with Dwayne Johnson), none of the laughs are at the expense of pro wrestling. It has fun with the bombast and the pageantry, the fact of it being “soap opera in spandex” as Paige’s coach in the WWE development program refers to it, but we’re always laughing with it, not at it. You’ll probably come away with a great deal of appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into putting on the show, and how much genuine athleticism it demands of its performers. It’s clearly a hugely difficult job that you really have to prove that you can do, and this deep empathy for the sport and its players is key to the film’s appeal.
Much of the rest of the appeal comes from its cast. It’s effectively but not showily directed, correctly keeping the focus on the actors, and in particular Florence Pugh, nominated last year for the BAFTA Rising Star Award, and whose star continues to rise here. She’s not yet put a foot wrong and she’s sensational here, outwardly confident and cocky but deeply conflicted, scared and vulnerable. This kind of movie demands a main character you can root for, and you’ll want to applaud her here.
Nick Frost turns in great work as Ricky, bringing layers of compassion and tenderness for his family to what could have been a one-note character; Lena Headey is similarly textured as Julia; and Jack Lowden excels in a tough role as Zak, having to be glad for his sister’s success and resentful that he hasn’t achieved the same. And The Rock Dwayne Johnson has a fun cameo as himself, teaching brother and sister how to make the kind of impression in the ring that he was famous for.
It’s obviously not without its problems, but they’re few, far between and quite easily ignored. The simple fact of it being an underdog sports movie means you’ll probably be able to guess quite a few of the plot beats right from the off; as enormously charming, funny and well-performed as it is, it holds relatively few real shocks and isn’t trying to really innovate within the genre. And considering how well drawn her family are, it would have been nice to spend a bit more time getting to know Saraya’s fellow WWE hope-fuls, none of whom leave as much of an impression as they could have. There’s a fairly major shift in her relationship with them that takes place mainly as part of a training montage, which feels like a missed opportunity to dig into their dynamic a little more.
None of this is remotely close to being a deal-breaker, though, and there’s a reason why the sports movie template has been used so much over the years: because it just works. With a strong cast, which we certainly have here, it’s hard to go too far wrong, particularly with a script as packed with both great gags and real heartfelt emotion as this one is. Paige’s story is almost impossible not to get invested in, and it’s a hard heart indeed that won’t want to cheer along with the crowd by the end.