Some parents expect their children to grow up and become doctors, lawyers, CEOs. Ricky and Julia Knight wanted their kids to become WWE superstars. Wrestling is the family business for the Knights, who run an amateur organization — the World Association of Wrestling, we’re sure you’ve heard of it — out of the small English town of Norwich. Dad (Nick Frost) is the mohawked terror known as “Rowdy Ricky”; Mom (Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey) dishes out pain under the name “Sweet Saraya.” And from the moment that their young daughter Saraya-Jade learned how to get out of a chokehold properly, she and her brother Zak were expected to get in the ring. The family that leg-drops together stays together, etc.
Cut to the siblings in their teens, with Saraya-Jade (Florence Pugh) hitting the ropes as “Britani” and partner “Zodiac Zak” (Jack Lowden) giving local punters their money’s worth. Then, the call comes: WWE representatives are going to be in London for a Smackdown event. They’ve seen the siblings’ tapes and they’d like both of them to audition. After running into The Rock backstage (Dwayne Johnson in the role he was born to play, i.e. an even more charismatic version of himself), the Knights try out for a wisecracking drill sergeant of a trainer named Hutch (Vince Vaughn). Zak gets the boot. Saraya-Jade gets invited to train in pro-wrestling’s equivalent of the minor leagues in Florida. Soon, our pale, Gothed-out heroine has renamed herself Paige and settled in to a physically punishing boot-camp experience. She also finds herself lost in America, a British Siouxsie Sioux among a sea of Barbies and one bad day away from seeing everything fall apart.
If you know Paige’s real-life, ragged-leotards-to-riches story, you know how this all plays out. Even if you don’t, Fighting With My Family makes no bones about telegraphing where it’s going and what kind of sports movie it is. There will be life lessons and setbacks and heel turns, especially when Zak’s resentment over his sister’s opportunity curdles into a personal downward spiral. Of course there are training montages, how could you even ask? Vaughn’s coach belongs to a long line of screen hard-asses determined to either push athletes past their limits or break their spirits one soul-crushing putdown at a time — his aggro-sarcastic comic timing has not been this on-point since Swingers. But how many times do you think Mr. Side Eye will quietly smile to himself when Paige does something right, or give her a you’re-ok-kid nod when she succeeds in winning over tough crowds? We stopped counting once that number hit triple digits. Just when you think Paige is down for the count, she finds the inner strength to come roaring back. The movie even plays like a wrestling match. It’s Underdog Cinema 101.
What’s surprising is how well all of this suplex-to-nuts biopic works. Hiring Stephen Merchant, one-half of the braintrust behind the original U.K. edition of The Office and a writer-director with a droll wit, to tell Paige’s story initially seems like an odd fit. But the skewed humor and warmth and scrappiness he brings to the family scenes, along with the fact that he doesn’t treat pro wrestling like a hold-your-nose novelty, is enough to distinguish this from a million other started-at-the-bottom-now-we’re-champs tales. Temporarily liberated from scowling and shorn-haired walks of shame, Headey is clearly having fun with her grappling, faux-growling wrestler mom. Fans of Frost — or “Frostitutes,” as the resident comic relief in Edgar Wright’s repertory company has sometimes referred to us diehards — will be ecstatic that he’s given ample opportunity to indulge in goofballery, yet not at the expense of his character’s paternal concern. (He’s not just a comic caricature, in other words.) If the sequences of Zac nosediving into self-destructiveness feel like weak links, the rapport between him and his sister nail the bond of siblings born into a family dynamic involving the regular administration of piledrivers. And we haven’t even mentioned the movie’s not-so-secret weapon yet.
That would be Florence Pugh, an English actor who’s been slowly building an impressive resumé of period-piece heroines with claws and fangs. Those who first saw her in hell-hath-no-fury mode in Lady Macbeth (2016) registered someone with a genuine fearlessness; anyone who caught her Cordelia in a recent King Lear adaptation and her steely queen in Outlaw King (both 2018) could tell she was meant for bigger things than corsets and cowering in musty castle corners. Before you could yell, “Welcome home, Helena Bonham Carter 2.0!”, we got her undercover recruit in AMC’s John le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl, and it started to feel like her talent was real-thing transcendent. This confirms it. Paige is the sort of role that requires her to be vulnerable, tough, rebellious, funny, determined, drained, someone capable of executing a move called “The Paigeturner,” everyone’s little sister and the sort of larger-than-life performer that can command an arena. She lets you see where all of this springs from, and how it’s all part of the same misfit. You’d be advised to see it for Pugh’s fireplug turn alone, which makes the just-north-of-oddball take on a warhorse narrative, the Rock’s charm-offensive cameos and a really choice Vin Diesel dig almost feel like bonuses.