I’m “biast” (con): …but I had no idea this was gonna be one of those
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The posters for Fighting with My Family — with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson standing there looking grim, next to a gothy teenaged girl — instantly turned me off. I thought: Ugh, a dumb movie about a dad who doesn’t get along with his daughter until everyone learns a touching lesson, very likely somehow via grossout “humor,” and oh look there’s Nick Frost hovering in the background, probably the doofus uncle whom everyone has to tolerate because, you know, fambly. No, thank you.
Except Fighting with My Family is not that movie.
But wait! If someone had corrected my misapprehensions about this movie by informing me that, no, this is about professional wrestling — as in violent soap operas in the ring, with villains and heroes who body slam one another and throw chairs and rapid-fire insults around… Well, I’d have run away screaming even faster than my misapprehensions were inspiring me to do.
Except Fighting with My Family is that professional-wrestling movie… and it’s absolutely terrific. Genuinely heartwarming, totally cheerworthy, bursting with warm and generous performances, and just a whole damn lotta fun. It even — and I cannot imagine that I would ever have said this — made me understand what audiences and performers alike see in professional wrestling. Yes, it’s fake. Yet it’s also so very real.
Be not fooled in one regard, however: This is not a The Rock movie. Johnson (Rampage, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) appears in only a very few scenes, as himself the WWE wrestling star (and not as the girl’s dad; Johnson is also a producer on the film). He’s terrific, of course, because he’s never less than thoroughly watchable even in a really stupid flick… which, I reiterate, this is not. But don’t go in expecting him to be the star here. He’s not.
Instead you get the glorious up-and-coming British actor Florence Pugh (The Commuter) — almost unrecognizable from her stunning feature lead debut in 2016’s Lady Macbeth — absolutely rocking it as Saraya Knight, in a story somewhat loosely based on that of WWE wrestler “Paige.” And you get another incredible up-and-comer, Jack Lowden (Mary Queen of Scots) — who first started to make a big splash with 2017’s Dunkirk — as her brother, Zak. They hail from a family of pro wrestlers on the local circuit in rural Norfolk, England; Lena Headey (Game of Thrones, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Nick Frost (Slaughterhouse Rulez, Tomb Raider) are a hoot as their wrestler parents. Saraya and Zak have always dreamed of making it big with the WWE, and then they get a chance to audition when the organization comes to London…
Fighting is, as mentioned, based on a real WWE performer’s story, so what happens from there is unspoilable: we already know that Saraya will ace her audition. I won’t reveal whether Zak makes it or not. But this is very much Saraya’s story, and it’s an enormous pleasure to see a girl at the center of what is in many ways a fairly familiar rags-to-riches, overnight-success tale. (There’s also a sly undercurrent of feminism that goes beyond merely centering a girl and her ambitions, and that is even more welcome.) We’ve seen the likes of Fighting before — in the realms of both sports and performing arts — though rarely with this abundance of charm and good humor, thanks to writer-director Stephen Merchant. (This is the British comedian’s second feature, his first with solo credit. He shared writing and directing credit on the 2010 indie dramedy Cemetery Junction.) Fighting even manages to get Vince Vaughn (Unfinished Business, Delivery Man) back into the sort of smart, snarky character role that originally made him so intriguing a screen presence; he plays the WWE coach who definitely does not go easy on Saraya.
So this isn’t all fun and games. The happy stuff is leavened with an enormous dollop of bittersweetness… the sort of dollop that also leaves you with a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye by the end. For Saraya has to learn that talent alone is not enough to make a dream come true, no matter how longed for that dream may be, but that hard work, sacrifice, sticktoitiveness, and teamwork are massively important. And there’s certainly no faking any of that.