It is soap opera in spandex, says one of the film's leading characters, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), about the world of professional wrestling. A small explainer is warranted. Professional wrestling is a performance art which mimics combat sports by combining athletics with theatrics. The matches have fixed outcomes and combative maneuvers are rehearsed and staged to reduce chances of injuries. These facts are open secrets now, but performing companies, such as the US-based, multi-million dollar World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), demand suspension of disbelief from the audience.
But, as Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, playing himself in Fighting with My Family (he is also executive producer), says to the film's leading characters: “Even though this world is fictionalised, the fans know when you are not being 1,000 per cent real.” And Saraya-Jade Bevis has always been real.
Bevis, better known by the stage name Paige, is the WWE's youngest women's champion of all time. The wrestler from Norwich, England, won the title in April 2014, when she was just 21. Four years later, she was forced to retire from in-ring competition because of a serious neck injury. But during that brief spell, Paige revolutionised the women's division in the WWE and ensured that female competitors were given the respect that they deserved. Fighting with My Family is her story.
The movie, directed by Stephen Merchant, is based on the 2012 documentary, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, which profiled Paige's family, all of whom are wrestlers. The film is every bit as predictable as the source material suggests, but that does not take away its emotional impact.
A young Saraya, who has hardly any interest in the sport, is forced to fill in when someone does not turn up for a match in her family's ramshackle wrestling promotion, and gets hooked. Roughly five years later, Saraya and her elder brother Zak get trials with the WWE, overseen by Morgan. Only Saraya gets selected. And Paige is born.
Fighting with My Family is a simple, feel-good movie, but has plenty of gloomy moments. One wrestler is asked matter-of-factly if he is ready to get hit on the head and the crotch with heavy objects and is then shown how painful those hits are. The desperate wrestler endures the pain and agrees to take the hits. The extreme athleticism required for the fixed fights in the WWE does not come easily. And though Morgan is nicknamed 'Sex Tape' (because he makes people famous), his training drills are gruesome.
The pale, pasty, would-be star from England struggles to fit in at her training camp in Florida. The teen goth looks unremarkable next to the tanned, and mostly blonde, American models, cheerleaders and dancers who are training to become WWE performers. Just how much looks mattered for the women in WWE (before the Paige revolution) is shown in a scene where Paige and her fellow trainees make their in-ring debuts on the WWE's developmental promotion, NXT. While her more glamorous colleagues win over the crowd instantly, Paige is unable to impress the American audience. Her looks earn her the moniker “freak” fairly quickly and we see a different side of the fierce competitor as she runs out of the ring in tears. Though we know she makes it big eventually, it is hard not to sympathise with the teenager, far from home, and stuck in a world that she does not understand.
The most impressive part of the movie is the portrayal of Paige by an outstanding Florence Pugh. She has nailed the moves in the ring and has slipped effortlessly into the vivacious and defiant attitude of the real-life Paige. The supporting characters, played by Jack Lowden (her brother Zak), Nick Frost (father) and Lena Headey (mother), are all spot on. Dwayne Johnson contributes his flair to the otherwise grounded story and brings the legendary WWE persona The Rock to life as only he can.
The only flaw of the film would be Paige's abrupt rise through the developmental setup. Fans of the WWE would know that it took a couple of years of hard work before she exploded on to the main roaster and won the women's championship on debut. But apart from this, the film is much more engaging than its premise suggests. And despite its predictability, it catches you in an emotional grip early on.
Film: Fighting with My Family
Director: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Florence Pugh, Vince Vaughn, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden and Dwayne Johnson