*Caution: review contains spoilers*
The world of professional wrestling is one of peaks and plateaus. Depending on the quality of the in-ring action, promos and backstage segments, pro-wrestling is either monumentally entertaining, or so bad it’s cringeworthy. Middle ground is almost nonexistent.
This extreme contrast has seemingly found its way into movies based on professional wrestling. You either have the serious side of things which depict the hard lives professional wrestlers live (usually through documentaries), or the completely moronic comedies that insult the intelligence of their audience, seemingly because they assume wrestling fans are stupid (like Ready to Rumble).
Fighting with My Family is a pleasant surprise then, pulling off a feat which has previously seemed impossible: delivering an entertaining and heartfelt movie rooted in the world of professional wrestling. A family-based comedy/drama revolving around real life professional wrestler Paige (real name Saraya Bevis), and her journey to the WWE, which eventually lead to her to changing the company’s perception of women’s wrestling for the better.
Taking place in the early 2010s, Fighting with My Family follows Saraya/Paige (Florence Pugh) and her family of wrestlers: older brother Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden), father Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost) and mother Julia “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey). You probably noticed that Paige’s real name is her mother’s ring-name. That’s how dedicated the family is to the sport.
Patrick and Julia own a small-town wrestling promotion, and have trained Zak and Saraya from an early age to follow in the family tradition as professional wrestlers, with Paige having had her first match at the age of thirteen. Both Paige and Zak have sent audition tapes to the WWE in hopes of making it big in the industry, and eventually NXT (WWE’s developmental brand) stops by their hometown looking for tryouts. Paige and Zak’s coach in NXT training is Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), whose cold disposition emphasizes the rough road the siblings have ahead of them. And when Paige is eventually selected to move on to the NXT brand while Zak is denied, it creates a riff in the sibling’s relationship.
What caught me by surprise about Fighting with My Family is that it’s a genuinely good and entertaining – even inspiring – biopic whether you’re a wrestling fan (such as myself) or not. The film was written and directed by Stephen Merchant (best known as co-creator of The Office, but best known to me as the voice of Wheatley in Portal 2), and executive produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who has a recurring role as himself in the film). Merchant’s writing and directing, in addition to the performances by the actors (especially Pugh, Lowden and Frost) help give the film a strong emotional weight, as well as a strong sense of humor (though not all of the jokes stick the landing).
Fighting with My Family is ultimately an underdog/rags-to-riches story, but one that feels pretty unique for two key reasons: one is the simple fact that it treats the world of professional wrestling as a serious and relatable backdrop for its story. Under less capable hands, the film may have aimed lower, given the popular misconceptions of the pro wrestling industry (news flash Hollywood, we all know it’s a show. That why we like it).
The other reason is its heroine. The pale-skinned, raven-haired Paige was as different as can be from the typical bleached blonde, spray-tanned, plastic-bodied “WWE Diva” that had been present in the company even before WWE’s wildly popular (but actually kind of crappy) Attitude Era sent things into overdrive. Though the film may suffer a tad from a mostly overly flattering portrayal of the WWE, it displays enough humility from the company to admit to its rampantly sexist past (a little eye candy and sex appeal is fine. But blatant sexual objectification is a problem, one which WWE indulged in for far too long). It’s pointed out in the film that every other female competitor training alongside Paige was either a model or a cheerleader hired for their looks, as opposed to a life-long wrestler like Paige.
The biopic chronicles Paige’s time in NXT and culminates with her debut on WWE’s main roster in 2014, in which she defeated AJ Lee to claim the WWE Divas Championship (at the time the company’s token attempt at a women’s title) to become the youngest women’s champion in company history. By ending the story when it does, the film ensures a happy, inspirational ending.
Though the sad truth is that Paige’s in-ring career has a more tragic ending. Despite being the primary centerpiece for WWE’s progressive evolution of its women’s division (though AJ Lee deserves some of the credit as well, she wasn’t the in-ring competitor Paige was), Paige barely got to see the fruits of her labor firsthand. Once she actually received some worthy competition on the roster with the likes of Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, Asuka, Bayley and Becky Lynch – as well as WWE dropping the “Divas” term entirely and introducing more serious women’s championships – a multitude of injuries saw Paige miss one opportunity after another, and shortly after a comeback in late 2017, forced her into an early retirement (she still makes various on-screen roles for the company, but can no longer compete in the ring). But I suppose it’s nice to see a wrestling movie have a happy ending for once.
As a wrestling nerd, I do have to nitpick some of the historical revisions the film makes, particularly in regards to NXT. In the film, NXT is presented as little more than a gym where wrestlers train for their WWE debut. While it’s true NXT serves as the company’s “developmental” brand, it is a fully-functioning brand in its own right, complete with championships and pay-per view events.
I only bring this up because the film skips over an important detail in Paige’s career as a consequence of this. Joining NXT in its early years, Paige was the inaugural NXT Women’s Champion, a title she held at the same time she won the WWE Divas Championship. I’m guessing the film was aiming to make the Divas Championship victory feel more important by removing a previous title victory. But considering Paige’s NXT Women’s Championship win was pretty much the first step in her changing women’s wrestling in WWE, it seems like a bizarre omission in the story.
Fighting with My Family is a pleasant surprise, a movie about professional wrestling that proves to be both entertaining and inspirational. Fans of professional wrestling will definitely enjoy it. And for a nice change, it’s a wrestling movie that you can enjoy even with no knowledge of the sport whatsoever. It may even get non-fans to tune into a professional wrestling show to see what all the fuss is about. I only hope that, should they tune in, it’s during one of its ‘peak’ moments…