In 2012, Channel 4 aired a fascinating documentary (The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family) about the Knight family from Norwich, who promote and perform in amateur wrestling shows. Wrestling is their life, their passion, and their livelihood, and they all take part in the fighting. There’s dad Ricky, and his wife Julia, and the stars of the show, their kids Zak and Saraya. When the documentary was aired, it just so happened that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was in the UK promoting a movie, and he caught it on TV. Coming from a wrestling family himself, he related to this story and set about bringing it to the big screen.
The resulting film, Fighting With My Family, written and directed by Stephen Merchant, uses the documentary as the jumping off point to tell a classic sporting drama story. Saraya (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) have been wrestling as part of their parent’s show for years. She is initially a reluctant sparring partner for Zak, but over the years has become the star attraction. They are both desperate to breakthrough and make it all the way to the glitz and glamour of the WWE. Having sent tapes and made countless pestering phone calls, they are both invited to a trial in London. The WWE recruiter (Vince Vaughn) puts them through their paces, but in the end, he only picks Saraya.
Merchant neatly intercuts the story, as we see the different paths Zak and Saraya’s lives now take. He is stuck in the drab and grey surroundings of small-town England, whilst she is whisked off to the bright lights of the USA, the land of opportunity, where the skies are always blue and seem to go on forever. It’s a nice twist on the traditional sport-movie narrative, and keeps the film grounded in the tension between the two siblings.
Pugh and Lowden are both terrific, and the dynamic between them maintains the drama in the film, which is important when anyone with even a passing interest in wrestling knows what happens in this story. Lowden is brilliant, and you really feel the pain he is going through. He’s so happy for his sister, and so full of pride at what she is achieving, but the anguish and envy he feels at her natural talent, her natural gifts, and that she is getting to live his dream is too much for him to take. There’s a sense of desperation in Zak, and Lowden nails it.
This is Saraya’s story though, and the film increasingly focuses on her out in America, and loses some of its emotional clout in the process. Now rebranded as Paige, she must go through a bootcamp with all the other trialists in order to make it to the WWE. From being the star attraction back home, she is now the underdog struggling with back-breaking and confidence-shaking reality of what it takes to make it in this business.
Florence Pugh is reliably brilliant as always, but you can’t help but feel she is a little short changed by the script. I realise that sounds ridiculous as it is a biopic about her character, but all the dramatic meat is with Zak. Pugh could have done so much more if the script had just dug a little deeper under Saraya’s skin. It’s hard to be too critical though, as this is a really enjoyable film. Funny and heart-warming, with a couple of great central performances. It even has a cameo from The Rock.
The Blu-ray release is well served with some decent extras, including a feature length commentary from writer-director Stephen Merchant. There’s also a selection of deleted and extended scenes, and a very funny gag-reel comprised entirely from one scene in the film. There’s a making-of featurette, as well a short piece focusing on Florence Pugh learning all the wrestling moves.
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson Director: Stephen Merchant Writer: Stephen Merchant Released By: Lionsgate Films Certificate: 12 Duration: 104 mins Release Date: 1st July 2019