Wrestling, like baseball, is derided by those who “don’t get it”; but worshipped by those who understand its charms. No matter which camp you belong to, it’s hard to deny Fighting With My Family pulses with a grungy and shabby charm. It upends tropes while also obeying others with the end result being a quiet movie about a woman coming into her own.
Stephen Merchant seems an unlikely fit for a biopic about a woman from Norwich, England who went on to be a WWE superstar. Yet, sometimes the best fits are ones you’d never think of. Merchant’s sly wit percolates throughout the film adding a layer of what can only be called bemused cynicism.
The Bevis clan are a working-class family who runs a wrestling gym in their small English town. Wrestling is a uniquely American idea. It is both fake and real while also requiring an outlandish brashness and vulgarity specific to our national psyche. Part of the film’s charm is seeing and hearing these outsized characters played by British actors with British voices. It is also a reminder that we may not be as unique as we think.
Based on a documentary Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, the film looks at Saraya (Florence Pugh) as she becomes Paige, and shoots to superstardom in the WWE. Merchant, however, isn’t really interested in a sports story. He’s much more interested in Saraya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden). Both have wanted to be professional wrestlers since they were kids, but it’s Paige who gets the call, for the big time.
The Bevis wrestling gym is a youth outreach center by day and the spot for low-grade backyard wrestling at night. The stars, of course, the Bevis clan themselves. If possible they are louder and brasher than their characters in the ring.
Merchant peppers Fighting With My Family with little bits of oddities and surreal humor. Every morning Saraya and Zak drive around the city picking up kids and take them to the gym. One of the kids is blind. But Merchant doesn’t frame it as kooky or absurd. Instead, he allows us to see how wrestling is helping a boy find himself.
A lesser movie would sneer at these characters. But Merchant and his script can’t help but love every single one of these lunkheads. Even the lithe blonde tan bombshells Saraya meets when she comes to America to train are treated with dignity and respect. Though that doesn’t mean he doesn’t poke fun. Such as when Saraya meets the other girls and they are so taken with her accent one of them exclaims, “Oh my god! I love your accent. You sound just like a nazi, it’s so adorable.”
Saraya with her pale skin, dark hair, pierced lips, and grunge fashion choices, clashes instantly with the other girls. Because Fighting With My Family is on Saraya’s side, we are too. She rolls her eyes and looks down at the models and cheerleaders who seem more at home in bikinis than in the ring.
The only woman there with any real wrestling experience she feels alienated by their cliquish behavior. But Merchant sidesteps years of conditioning by movies and shows us that, like Saraya, these ladies are no less passionate or determined. Main characters in sports biopics tend to have all their rough edges sanded off. To have a character with actual flaws and discover that in reality, it’s she who is being judgmental, is rare.
Getting over herself Saraya begins to realize the benefit of working with the other girls rather than against them. Slyly, Merchant shows us Saraya working with the other girls and transforming them. By teaching them her own brand of hardscrabble wrestling she transforms them into actual wrestlers.
If that were all Fighting With My Family did it would be enough. But Merchant treats the rest of the Bevis family with equal love and interest. Saraya is the one chosen, but it’s Zak who’s had the dream first. He is crushed when Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) tells him in no uncertain terms “It’s the end of the line for you, son.”
Zak spirals into self-destructive behavior. Of course, Saraya will have to pull him back from the brink and the two will reconcile and all will be forgiven. While the trope may be a cliche the emotion and anguish from both Zak and Saraya are not.
Pugh is an actress who never seems to be acting. For a movie about the birth of a superstar, Pugh traverses a canyon of self-doubt and crippling shyness. It’s especially impressive when you realize in the final scene she is a woman playing a woman playing a woman. The moment doesn’t last for long but it’s still an impressive bit of Russian doll acting.
It helps that her father Patrick and Julia are played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey. Headey for one seems to be having the time of her life as the proud matriarch. A young Zak puts a young Saraya in a choke hold. Julia walks into the room as Saraya tells her Zak is choking her. “Right. So what are you going to do about it?” Nevermind that Patrick had just finished showing Zak how to properly choke Saraya out.
More than anything the Bevis’ feel like an actual family. Much like The Addams Family, they don’t match to their own drummer so much as they mosh to their own Gwar cover band. Try as they might they can’t help but be who they are. Zak invites his girlfriend’s parents over to dinner. He swears his parents to “no swearing”.
After dinner, Julia and Patrick begin to excitedly list their injuries from the ring to the terrified visiting couple. Julia blurts out, “You should see his c***! Sorry! I mean penis. You should see his penis.” Merchant’s writing subtly lets the Bevis family’s eccentricities shine through, vulgar crudeness and all.
Remi Adefarasin’s camera work is unassuming but by no means lacking. Adefarasin strives for a documentary feel while also allowing for slow glides and sharp framing. The result is a shaggy dog of a movie with an eye for knowing where to put its characters within the shot.
It’s a sports movie so of course, there are montages. But Merchant takes mercy on us and only once has a montage put to a sad pop song. Fighting With My Family somehow hits every cliche but does so knowingly. It knows what we expect and side steps those moments by giving us something else while also knowing what we want and delivering.
Scruffy in both look and feel Fighting With My Family never panders to us. Merchant never tells us why Saraya and her family love wrestling but by the end, we understand anyway.