Wrestling has never had a huge amount of mainstream appeal. Even as a child it always felt a little overdramatic to me and I never got why so many people adored it. Fighting With My Family is a good enough movie to change that, though.
Fighting With My Family is the true story of Paige (real name Suraya-Jade Bevis), a woman from Norwich who joined her family’s wrestling business at age 13. In 2014, she became the youngest ever WWE Divas Champion at age 21, a record she still holds. Her popularity on the show has helped the women of professional wrestling get more recognition and airtime in contrast to their male counterparts. Coming from a down-on-their-luck family in the far from illustrious city of Norwich, England, it’s safe to say Paige’s story is a heartwarming tale of unanticipated success. How much of the film is true to her experience is impossible to say, but it weaves a compelling narrative around an unlikely but wonderful hero.
Paige is portrayed in the film by Florence Pugh; if you haven’t heard her before now, this could be the role that makes her career. She excels at the toughness the wrestling ring requires, but the more emotional scenes are incredible in her hands. The arguments with her family, her struggle to connect with the other women during training and the anxieties about blowing her one shot are all handled brilliantly. Pugh is an utter delight in the role and she is surrounded by equally brilliant talents. Her mother and father (Lena Heady and Nick Frost respectively) might seem like stereotypical one-track-mind parents at first but they’re very well fleshed out. Paige’s brother Zak (Jack Lowden) is one of the darker characters in the film. His downward spiral as he watches his sister achieve everything he wasn’t given the chance to brings out the toxic elements of the family dynamic. It can be a tough watch but only because it’s portrayed so vividly and brilliantly.
I think that’s what makes this film so powerful, at least for me. It’s not about wrestling so much as it is about the people involved in wrestling; the people who love it and the people who make it. You don’t need to have followed WWE to understand Fighting With My Family because it’s grounded in emotions we all understand. What shone through for me was how much wrestling means to a lot of these people. Paige’s family runs its own wrestling club where a lot of the local kids come for lessons. These kids make up what you might describe as outsiders, at least in terms of people normally represented in these types of films. Kids from lower income families, for whom wrestling is an escape. One of them is even blind, but Zak develops a way for him to learn to wrestle using sight and sound (and I remind you here that this is a true story). Watching these kids pile into the van, screaming along to Iron Maiden and getting ready to have some fun is a perfect example of the heart that makes this movie compelling.
Director Stephen Merchant has done a wonderful job on a technical level as well. His style is subtle but there are moments where his choices work wonders on an already very resonant film. The colouring of Paige’s apartment while she’s struggling to cope with her Florida training regimen make it look like a dream that’s falling apart. The camera knows exactly what to focus on at all times, showing us the glitz and glam of professional wrestling when we should be in awe but pulling back into Paige when it all becomes too much for her. There are also some masterful uses of sound editing; Paige’s panicked, quick breaths into her microphone, just about audible over the sound of a crowd turning on her, are a small but powerful touch.
My only real complaint is that some emotional beats are a little rushed, which ruins the impact. I’d like to have spent a bit more time with Roy (James Burrows), the black sheep of the Knight family. I’d also have liked to have seen more of Paige’s blossoming friendship with the other girls she struggles to make friends with initially. Everyone likes each other by the end of the film, which is fine, but it’s left a little unclear how Paige turned it around. But that’s a minor complaint.
Overall, this movie captures something wonderful. The way the film presents itself is rooted deeply in an unspoken rule of wrestling: all the drama is fictional. The rivalries between wrestlers is just for entertainment, it’s actually a team effort to get there. That’s a huge element of the film’s emotional core. It’s not about you going up against everyone else. It’s about everyone pulling through together. I don’t know many films that aim for a message like that without becoming too sentimental, but Fighting With My Family is a great one that’s more than worthy of your time.