Thu, 14 Mar 2019
Fighting with My Family (12A)
Running time 1hr 48min
STRANGE little film, this. The Stephen Merchant-directed Fighting with My Family sets itself up as a kitchen-sink outsider comedy, documenting the careers of the Bevises, a real-life wrestling dynasty. Nick Frost (known for this sort of oddball, full-English picture) features as father Patrick, while rising star Florence Pugh is daughter Saraya (alter ego: ‘Paige’), whisked from the hard streets of Norwich and into the camp, hyper-glam world of WWE. In what amounts to an extended cameo, the ever-likeable Dwayne. ‘The Rock’ Johnson pops up to portray himself; Vince Vaughn (who appears to have gained real currency as a dramatic actor) plays Paige’s hard-as-nails coach, beasting the upstart Limey in a series of uncompromising physical trials. While it’s undoubtedly a treat to see two Hollywood big names bussed in for a best-of-British sports flick, their presence is frequently at odds with the ramshackle saccharinity that pervades the Norwich-set sequences – eschewing visceral fight showmanship in the name of wish-fulfilment whimsy and interpersonal drama, the film never really gets its priorities straight, rendering itself a victim of its own ambition. But it’s tremendous fun; like the documentary it’s based on (2012’s The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family), it convincingly interrogates the ultra-niche appeal of professional wrestling.
Quite frankly, you’ve probably already seen this movie a dozen times over – Paige, the underdog, will overcome incredible odds, win the day and make her family proud. Along the way, she’s dogged by Vaughn’s gloomy trainer (who, it transpires, is himself a resentful ex-wrestler – nihil novi) and by a clique of catty, sun-kissed peers; Pugh rises admirably to the challenge, elevating the film above its biopic tropes in delivering a touching tale of self-realisation. Paige has been groomed for the big leagues since childhood, and only discovers her love for wrestling over the course of her time at WWE – in a movie that otherwise bristles with triumphalism and ballsiness, her story is handled with surprising subtlety, and that’s due in no small part to Pugh’s sympathetic, credible performance. Less delicately-executed (but no less engaging) is a subplot involving Zak (Jack Lowden), the older Bevis sibling; the former golden boy of the family, he is forced to reckon with his sister’s whirlwind success, all the while navigating the pitfalls of maturity and fatherhood. His journey, like Paige’s, takes us to familiar places (a violent chamber match, a dingy boozer that symbolises his low point), but Lowden is surprisingly effective, his Johnny Hardman act punctuated by moments of real vulnerability and unlikely tenderness.
Fighting with My Family walks a dangerous line – any single miscast could have imperilled the film, laying bare its clichés and its imprecision. As a rule of thumb, this critic expects of a great sports movie the same self-discipline one would expect of real-life practitioners – boxing films must land their punches hard and tactically, while a football flick demands compelling team dynamics. This picture is no genre classic, but in taking the action out of the ring and finding a balance between all its main players, it does just about enough right to merit a look-in.