A hardcore WWE fan for the best part of 20 years, that for all the judgmental remarks directed my way for being so invested in it, has been an exhilarating escape as these technically sound superstars put it all on the line. The giddy no-nonsense heights of the ‘Attitude Era’ as the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and HHH electrified crowds, leaving me hooked. Yet in its modern and admittedly more family-friendly setup, it has been the company’s investment in a progressive women’s division and branching into the UK market through its thriving brand NXT, that has captured many a fellow fan’s imagination. We’ve certainly come a long way since those regressive Bra and Panties matches…
In a thrilling combination of the two, it gave birth to Norwich-born Paige whose distinctive look and undeniable in-ring ability helped revolutionise women’s wrestling alongside the Charlotte Flairs and Becky Lynch’s of this world. From an admittedly unconventional family who lives and breathes the sport, director Stephen Merchant at first glance could strike as a peculiar fit for such fare. Yet the warmth and wit that has made his name, that he scatters throughout this immensely entertaining offering, only enhances the dysfunctionality and heart of Paige’s rise to the main WWE roster.
The alchemy of this family unit is palpable from the outset. Saraya/Paige (Florence Pugh) and Zac Zodiac (Jack/Jacked? Lowden) are as united in their dream of breaking out of their modest gym and enhancing their reputations, as their working-class parents Patrick (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) are in unintentionally embarrassing them in potentially life-changing situations. But the idea that wrestling has collectively saved them from a path of self-destruction, isn’t beyond comprehension.
Flexing their muscles on the local scene. They are soon propelled into the competitive arena of their desired destination, with the bright lights of ‘team blue’ Smackdown Live beating down on them, setting them on a collision course with tough-talking trainer Hutch (Vince Vaughn). A fitting colour as the air and their thoughts turn, with the varying fortunes of the pair at a try-out sending them in different directions, putting a significant strain on their brother/sister bond. Are they just ‘journeymen’? Do they truly possess that ‘spark’?
Rather like when you see a wrestler go to audacious lengths to defeat their opponent. Think leaping off a 15ft high steel cage or scaling a frightfully tall ladder. It’s the sheer commitment of its excellent ensemble and director that allows Fighting With My Family to punch well above its weight.
In an era that is rather PG, Stephen Merchant clearly relishes the prospect of shifting the comedic sparring into adult territory that for all its broad strokes, makes for often hysterical viewing. But it’s the subtle deconstruction of the classic ‘wrestling is fake’ argument that is arguably his most impressive move here. Whether it be the exhilarating and immersive quality he captures his stars in action in these contrasting arenas, or the well-drawn internal/external conflict that leaves plenty of room for the uninitiated to become truly invested in these colourful characters. His execution of the material is thankfully not worth Vince McMahon calling him up, to shout ‘YOU’RE FIRED!’ down the phone.
Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden make for a terrific tag team, individually solidifying their rising star status. Pugh’s embodiment of Paige through her mannerisms and attitude is a joy to watch. Navigating through her own identity crisis, she impeccably conveys the isolation and sheer adversity as she fights off competition from previous pristine looking models and cheerleaders. The character arc of Lowden’s Zac is no less engrossing, whose gradual breakdown of strength in both body and mind in the wake of such a setback, is surprisingly poignant. Nick Frost and Lena Headey are certainly armed with many of the script’s comic zingers, with their enthusiasm infectious and whilst it’s perhaps easy to be cynical about his inclusion. That’s not to say the scenes involving Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson don’t delight, which are packed with glorious meta exchanges and emotional punch.
A fantastically feel-good delve into a sport adored by many, that also proves to be a thoroughly engaging family drama on its own terms. Fighting With My Family is more than deserving of a main event slot.
Directed by: Stephen Merchant
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Leana Headey, Dwayne Johnson, Vince Vaughn