Florence Pugh brings her indie attitude to a lovable wrestling comedy of heart and sweat.
Spoiler alert: You do know that pro wrestling is fake, right? Don’t want to crush any dreams here. The boastful, performative nature of WWE, spiked with mini dramas and constant role-playing, becomes the lingua franca of an atypical household in Fighting with My Family, the sweetest of comedies despite a sizable number of body slams.
Perhaps the Knights, a close-knit clan from working-class Norwich, England, are onto something: Dad and Mom—a perfectly matched Nick Frost (tattooed and bushy bearded) and Games of Thrones’ Lena Headey (flaunting a fierce red dye job)—are former wrestling attractions who now thrill to the bouts of their grown-up children, Zak (Jack Lowden) and Raya (Florence Pugh). Together, they run a local gym and training academy, mainly for kids. But the big show eludes them, until a life-changing phone call comes, and Zak and Raya head to London for tryouts.
If you’re already aware that Raya goes by the stage name Paige (from her favorite gothy Charmed character), you may know too much—the film is based on a real-life success story, turned into a 2012 documentary. Suffice to say that writer-director Stephen Merchant, a comedy legend for co-creating The Office, is happy to hit every inspirational beat. More impressively, though, he steers the material toward affectionate rudeness—this is a film that makes Mötley Crüe’s “Wild Side” sound square. Like School of Rock, the movie is about indoctrination into a subculture that, for all its surface trashiness, offers a deep, perhaps unexpected sense of belonging. Paige heads to Miami, where she makes peace with her bikini-clad competition (“You sound like a Nazi in a movie!” they coo over her accent) and gains wisdom from Hutch (Vince Vaughn in full-on insult mode), a coach who pushes her through boot camp.
After cry-laughing your way through the first half hour—even Dwayne Johnson playing himself is a riot, throwing down some primo trash talk—there’s an undeniable dip into a bummer middle section. Left behind in Norwich with his own career fantasy in shambles, Zak finds his identity slipping away (not your usual subplot), while Paige goes through the expected crisis of confidence that lingers long enough for you to do that circular, get-on-with-it gesture. But Merchant never loses our interest: He’s made a sparkly, strutting film that doesn’t apologize for or look down upon its heroes. A “soap opera in spandex” is what Hutch calls pro wrestling to his trainees, and the movie follows suit. Who doesn’t love a melodrama in tights once in a while?
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew