I’m a fan of professional wrestling. There’s no shame in admitting that. I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. I have vivid memories of Undertaker pushing Mankind off a six-metre tall cage. “Did he die?!” I thought to myself in absolute shocking. I remember watching Jeff Hardy spear Edge as hung on to the tag team title for dear life in the second Tables Ladders and Chairs match. And I remember the electrifying crowd reaction at Wrestlemania 17 as The Rock and Hulk Hogan (this time villainous and donning black) sized each other up in the squared circle. Throughout my life, I’ve had an on again off again relationship with pro-wrestling, just like most fans, but I never truly walked away from it. So you can imagine how excited I was walking into Fighting with My Family, a film about a pro-wrestler who changed women’s wrestling forever.
A lot of what I talked about above may seem uninteresting to a lot of people. The same can be said about the film’s trailer, which I’m sure many watched and went, “a movie about wrestling? Meh. Who cares?” But Fighting with My Family isn’t a movie about wrestling perse, the same way Rocky isn’t a movie about boxing. This is a human story. It is a story about undying passion. An underdog tale about a young girl and her family who have dedicated their whole lives to a craft. And we follow a young girl, Saraya, on her journey as she chases her lifelong dream to perform her art on the biggest stage of all. This is a fist-pumping, emotional and bloody inspiring zero to hero story that just so happens to be about a wrestler.
Paige — real name Saraya-Jade Bevis — was named after her mother (Julia Knight, played by Lena Headey)’s in-ring persona. Her dad, Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) spent a majority of his life in and out of prison, until he found wrestling and it became his saviour. Both are hilariously profane. Her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) is perhaps her best friend, closest confidant and arguably an even bigger wrestling fan than their parents. But despite being born into a family of wrestling purists, as a kid, Saraya wasn’t half as interested in the artform as the rest of her them. That is until one day, as a teenager, she gets into the ring and gets her first taste of an audience reaction at her family’s local wrestling gym. The taste soon turns into an addiction and then into fuel. It becomes the dream of both Saraya and her brother to one day get signed by the WWE.
They’ll soon find out that the journey is more gruelling and cutthroat than either of them would’ve expected. The first bit of drama comes when WWE holds a tryout in London. Saraya and Zak give it a go with the assumption that if anybody was to be signed by the biggest pro-wrestling company in the world, it would be Zak. But when the dust settles, only Saraya gets chosen to go to the next stage: WWE developmental in Orlando, Florida. There she adopts the name Paige — her favourite character from a popular 90s TV series, Charmed — and trains under a fictionalised coach named Hutch Morgan, played by Vince Vaughn with the right amount of intensity and warmth. (In an interview with Collider Live, Paige said that Hutch Morgan is an amalgamation of Dusty Rhodes and a couple of other WWE trainers.)
The story may sound cliche and predictable. It is. There’s no denying that it hits a lot of the same beats as Rocky and many other sports movies that have come after it. But Fighting with My Family isn’t about “what” happens, it’s about a character’s journey. In his directorial debut, writer-director Stephen Merchant pens a screenplay that borrows familiar beats but still finds a way to be its own animal. Here we have a character who wasn’t as interested in wrestling as her older brother but ironically ends up being the one who’s selected to go the distance. The film explores what that does to their relationship. Zak gets envious and starts distancing himself from Saraya but it’s eating him alive because he genuinely loves his sister.
Saraya goes through trials and tribulations of her own. At WWE Developmental, she becomes an outcast. This was back in the day when the ‘Divas division’ (as it was known then) was populated by sexy models and hot cheerleaders more than actual athletic wrestlers. Coming from a pure wrestling background, Saraya is immediately at odds with many of the women that WWE had signed. Surprisingly, Merchant doesn’t paint a black and white picture. This isn’t about Saraya being right and putting all the other “divas” in their places. Saraya has flaws. She goes through a journey of self-discovery, trying to first overcome her entitlement and then her insecurities and desperate desire to fit in.
This is a film that will make you tear up and also cheer and clap as our hero climbs out of her hometown family-owned wrestling gym, hike up the ladder of WWE’s Developmental programme and finally soar towards the main roster of Monday Night Raw. Florence Pugh is stellar as Saraya/Paige. She overflows charisma and holds the screen as well as Paige held the ring during her peak. She’s also a good actor, one who’s able to find the nuances of her character and deliver a layered performance.
Fighting with My Family is easily the best film to come out of WWE Studios. The problem is, because it’s a film about a WWE superstar, produced by the WWE, it suffers from a lot of the problems as Bohemian Rhapsody last year. It’s a very safe movie. Stephen Merchant directs this film with such warmth and tenderness, which is great when applied to the smaller, family moments — the scene in the tiny kitchen with the Knight family teasing Zak about his penis is a standout in particular. But the film needed a bit more grit and dirt and coarseness to it because wrestling as a business is gritty, dirty and rough. Fighting with My Family doesn’t quite explore the depths of the mental and emotional suffering faced by pro-wrestlers as they journey towards greatness. It shows you how thankless and fruitless the industry can be but does so in a manner that feels safe. In other words, it delivers a Rock Bottom on a mattress when it would’ve benefited from a Rock Bottom through a table filled with thumbtacks.
But similar to the Queen fans who were unaffected by the flaws of Bohemian Rhapsody, I’m mostly unruffled by the blemishes of Fighting with My Family. Would I have preferred a grittier take on Paige’s story akin to 2008’s The Wrestler? Yes. But there’s also no denying the tears that rolled down my cheeks and salted my popcorn for the majority of the film. My heart raced right from the opening sequence — we see a TV screen and on it is The Rock in his prime, standing on the turnbuckle, lifting the WWE Championship over his head. It brought back memories of my childhood. Watching Paige’s journey on the big screen, especially considering her recent retirement from in-ring action due to an injury, made me well up with emotions. This year, the top women of WWE (Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair) headlined Wrestlemania, in a monumental match — the first Wrestlemania main event in WWE’s storied history to feature women wrestlers. None of it would’ve happened if Paige hadn’t stepped into the WWE ring back in 2011. Thinking about it made me shed tears of joy.