If you haven’t noticed, Professional Wrestling has witnessed a resurgence in cultural relevance as of late. Buoyed by the box-office success of its biggest stars: John Cena, Dave Bautista, and Dwayne the Rock Johnson— a producer on this film, it’s surprising that we haven’t already received a behind-the-scenes inspirational story from the wrestling world until now. Director Stephen Merchant‘s Fighting with My Family — which charts the rise of Professional Wrestler Paige — debuted as a “secret” screening at Sundance and became one of the surprise run away crowd pleasers of the festival.
The film opens with an adolescent Paige being goated into the ring to wrestle her brother by her promoter father, Ricky Knight (Nick Frost). Fast-forward a few years, and both Paige/Raya (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are still wrestling in their father and mother, Julia Knight (Lena Headey)’s amateur-wrestling circuit.
The shoe-string budget wrestling promoted by Ricky and Julia is just barely making ends meet, doubling as a school for at-risk and disabled children to gain skills in the ring. Like most low-budget leagues, Ricky and Julia are pulling every trick in the book to stay solvent. They’re not social savants; in fact — they’d be described as slobs, which is part of their charm and where Merchant inserts his witty humor.
Ricky and Julia’s biggest dream is for one — or both — of their children to wrestle professionally (they came close with their second son, but he’s in jail). Whether they aspire for their children to reach stardom for Raya or Zak’s sake or their own bottom line is debatable. Still, both Raya and Zak are invited by the WWE to audition for the NXT program — a high-level training school that determines who will ultimately wrestle on television — but only Raya is accepted, which creates tension between the two siblings: one given a chance, the other — returning to their wife and child — and left crashing down to the mat with a thud.
The second half of Fighting with My Family becomes a test of will for Raya — a black-haired goth from Norwich — as she struggles to fit in with her supermodel-level competition and whether she actually wants this dream. The film’s second-half highlight is by far Vince Vaughn as Hutch — a sarcastic, cynical, honest coach, and failed-wrestler who trains these aspiring wrestlers into the ground. The role perfectly feeds into Vaughn’s best comic sentiments, as he delivers each of Merchant’s acidicly written barbs with perfection.
Florence Pugh — an indie darling who is on the verge of a commercial breakout — as Raya/Paige also impresses. Firstly, the training is there. Pugh comfortably glides through the ring, hitting much of the choreography with gusto. Secondly, she adds an emotional gravitas to what’s a by-the-numbers Rocky-script. In the final third of the film, when it’s a will-she or won’t-she tug of war, it’s Pugh’s acting that keeps the audience somewhat engaged in a signed-sealed-and-delivered ending.
Still, Merchant lands enough jokes and finds plenty of heart in Fighting with My Family. Dwayne Johnson, who also provides two brief cameos in the film, adds that last twinkle of star power to push this film. And when Raya becomes Paige, when she finally finds herself, the payoff feels real and earned as the WWE crowd surges the film to its final minutes. Fighting with My Family is a defining wrestling film wrapped in feel-good vibes.