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Fighting With My Family

Fighting With My Family was a critical and commercial sleeper hit from earlier this year, stuck in a godawful February release date. I’m sincerely glad I caught it on DVD in time for consideration for my year-end lists.

This is the true-life story of Saraya-Jade Bevis, aka Paige (here immortalized by Florence Pugh), the youngest Divas Champion in the history of the WWE. A British girl from Norwich, she made her debut in the World Association of Wrestling promotion run by her parents (played here by Nick Frost and Lena Headey), former wrestlers themselves. Paige got her start in the ring opposite her brother (Zak, played by Jack Lowden) and she’s been wrestling ever since.

Long story short, Paige and Zak get called in to try out for the WWE. Paige gets signed and flies out to Florida to keep on training for the big leagues. Zak has to stay behind and figure out how to move on after his life’s dream has been crushed. Of course he’s still proud of his sister, and Zak just got a girl pregnant so he has a new baby to live for, but he doesn’t know how to do anything else except wrestle, and what is he even doing that for if the big leagues are forever closed off to him?

Meanwhile, Paige is a goth-looking young woman with a lifetime of professional wrestling experience, training and competing against bleach-blonde models and cheerleaders. She doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t have a thing in common with any of her fellow trainees, and it’s entirely possible that she’s not whatever the big leagues are looking for. And anyway, if she’d be happier going back home and wrestling with her family, why doesn’t she go back and do that?

Oh, right — because if she throws away her shot, she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. To say nothing of her family, who gave everything to get Saraya where she is and they’d give everything twice over to be where she is. Then again, Zak and their parents are still doing wonderful work running a business, raising a family, and training local kids who don’t have anything else. As Paige herself so eloquently puts it at one point, doing something good doesn’t matter any less just because millions of people aren’t cheering at it.

Getting back to Paige, this is in many ways the story of Saraya learning to carve out a place for herself and find her family. She thinks at first that she could never find a place in the WWE with all these plastic-looking women she doesn’t have a thing in common with. What she doesn’t even stop to consider (maybe because she’s too focused on not dying) is that these women have families too. They may not be actual wrestlers, but they’re still training and sacrificing so much to get this shot at fortune and fame just like Paige is. So maybe they have more in common than they realize and competition doesn’t necessarily mean being uncivil.

Oh, and of course Paige — still a teenage girl, remember — has to piece together her onstage persona as a metaphor for figuring out who she really is and what she really wants. (see also: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, etc.)

This is a tough movie for me to review for quite a few reasons, in part because… well, I don’t have much in the way of nitpicks. Seriously. Yes, the British accents are thick enough that I had to turn on the subtitles. Yes, the WWE is branded here as a fantasy factory, which is more than a bit problematic.

Even so, the movie doesn’t sugar-coat how insanely tough it is to get into the WWE. Millions of applicants train their whole lives for a shot, devoting themselves so completely to the possibility of getting in that they’ve got nothing left if they don’t make it; and even those who get in could still end up washing out after they’ve broken themselves in training or in the ring. And that’s not just lip-service — all of that is a huge part of the plot. Plus, the filmmakers take every opportunity to point out how important the fans are in all of this, with their power to make or break careers, and that was a nice touch.

And anyway, it should really speak volumes about the movie, that I had to dig so hard for such small potatoes.

Florence Pugh is a bona fide powerhouse leading lady, Nick Frost and Lena Headey are pitch-perfect, and Jack Lowden brings a tour de force performance. Vince Vaughn plays the coach — functionally the face and voice of the WWE, clearly a fictional amalgam of so many real-life players in Paige’s career — delivering a perfectly balanced performance atop more razor-thin lines than I could catalogue here. Even exec producer Dwayne Johnson stops by for a couple of scenes, providing a bit of uplifting comic relief without stealing the whole show.

The casting is perfect across the board, writer/director Stephen Merchant (also a bit comedic player here) is on fire, the comedy works, the family interplay is spellbinding, the wrestling scenes and training montages are dynamite… Everything about this movie fires on all cylinders. It’s astounding.

And yet I still have a hard time praising this movie, because it’s not the sort of film that lends itself to overhyping. This isn’t some massively epic mind-blowing blockbuster, nor is it some innovative genre-blending masterpiece to change the medium of cinema as we know it. And it was never built to succeed on that level. This movie was only ever meant to be an intimate family drama that humanizes a real-life subject, dramatizing her rise to fame while giving us characters and relationships we can emotionally invest in. That’s what it set out to do, and it succeeds perfectly.

Yet this film is far more than a mediocrity that simply goes through the motions, and it’s for another reason why I have such a hard time reviewing this. The movie primarily succeeds because of something I can’t adequately convey through writing and something you could never properly experience through a written review: HEART.

Every joke, every shouting match, every wrestling match, every shot, every cut, everything from start to finish, down to the last wrinkle on an actor’s face is bursting with passion. Down to the last extra, everyone in this cast and crew seriously believed in this rags-to-riches story about a social outcast from Norwich who fought to earn her place on the world stage. And even for those back home who didn’t make it, every one of them seen as a freak and a loser by mainstream society, the filmmakers treat them with no less dignity and respect.

Fighting With My Family is must-see material, but not because it’s a huge leap forward for the medium or the next big thing. (Though Florence Pugh has more than proven herself to be worthy of A-list status at this point.) It’s a deeply heartfelt movie powered by a staggering family dynamic, with plenty of great laughs and some killer montages. It’s nothing more or less than an exquisitely made film with a fantastic script and a phenomenal cast.

I absolutely loved this movie and I hope you’ll love it to. And at just over 100 minutes, it’s not even all that much time spent. Definitely check this one out at your earliest convenience.

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