REVIEW: Fighting with my Family (2019)

Zak and Saraya Knight live in Norwich; part of a family of amateur wrestlers, they dream of one day joining the popular World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) organisation in America. When they finally get the chance to compete for a spot in the WWE’s trainee NXT program, Saraya is accepted while Zak is not – putting one sibling on a path to fame and the other to despair.

Based in part on Max Fisher’s documentary of the same name, and inspired by the true story of Saraya-Jade Bevis (aka professional wrestler Paige), Fighting with my Family presents a broadly entertaining and inspiring sports drama with a strong female protagonist. It sticks closely to genre convention and stereotype, but the performances lift the material well beyond what one might expect. It is a neatly developed slice of mainstream entertainment – and there is always space for such films on the big screen.

How one responds to Fighting with my Family likely depends on what one thinks of professional wrestling. It is one part combat sport, one part pantomime-style theatre, and just as easily confused as poor-quality fake fighting as it is celebrated as a unique physical form of popular entertainment. The entire phenomenon is a carefully managed and pre-determined charade, however it still relies on real athleticisim and flair. As noted by Saraya’s father “Rowdy Ricky” Knight, wrestling is ‘fixed, but not fake’. If you can at least appreciate wrestling as a form of entertainment, you will likely appreciate Saraya’s dreams here. Admittedly the film exaggerates wrestling’s worth terribly: the actual WWE is a blunt commercial entity aimed to earn its stakeholders money, and the manner in which it is presented on-screen as a noble and worthy vocation does not fit reality very well. It even threatens at times to buy into its own con: wrestling is, as Rowdy Ricky claims, fixed. That the film’s climax produces any suspense at all is a minor miracle of misdirecting an audience.

Florence Pugh delivers a hugely engaging and sympathetic performance as Saraya, whose storyline dominates throughout. As Zak, Jack Lowden is under-served by the screenplay, and is forced to work his way through a truncated and rote character arc. Dwayne Johnson makes a few key appearances as himself: it seems a part less required by the story and more by the film’s marketing strategy. He is amiable but unnecessary.

The film’s unexpected best asset is Vince Vaughn. He was once an actor with huge promise, who then wasted a lot of time starring in sub-par commercial comedies. Recent years have seen him working with less mainstream but more interesting roles. Fighting with my Family sees him back on populist ground, but it is with a far more intriguing character. The script brings a nice sense of balance and realism to coach Hutch Morgan (a fictional character inspired by multiple real-life trainers). Vaughn brings a restrained, under-stated performance to match it.

Writer/director Stephen Merchant has put together a straught-forward and broadly entertaining drama. It is not intended to gather critical acclaim, or win awards, or anything else more ambitious than to please its audience. That, I strongly suspect, it does. It is a pleasant diversion and a nicely developed story about achieving one’s dreams. There is always a space for that. Fighting with my Family fits it well.

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