Fighting with My Family may be 2019’s first sleeper hit. Whether you know nothing about wrestling or you can identify every professional wrestler in the last 30 years by his or her boots, the quirky biopic about Saraya “Paige” Knight’s journey to World Wrestling Entertainment superstardom is cinematic entertainment at its finest.
Co-produced by arguably the biggest star to ever come out of the WWE, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who also co-stars as himself), it’s no wonder the story has such broad appeal. I mean, who doesn’t like The Rock? As he tells the young, aspiring wrestlers in the film, “The secret is knowing how to win over the crowd,” and this film does that in spades.
In crafting the film, writer-director Stephen Merchant, co-creator of the U.K. version of “The Office,” took inspiration from the 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family. With his trademark wit and penchant for the slightly odd and awkward, he creates a story that, on the surface, few of us would relate to, but at its core is quite universal.
Even by the working-class standards of Norwich, England, the tattooed and body-pierced Knight family is eccentric. The wrestling training center they run is the epicenter of their family and a ragtag group of kids. It’s a place where “misfits” and “freaks” can learn to be strong and to be comfortable in their own skin. The sense of community is one of the elements that draws the audience in, even if they have zero interest in wrestling.
Throughout the film, Merchant deftly balances comedy and heart. When Saraya (Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth) is grappling with being a fish out of water in a Floridian sea of tanned, leggy blonds who are also training for their WWE opportunity, we want to see her go the distance. As the characters reconcile with their hopes and dreams, successes and failures, Merchant ensures that we’re rooting for them.
Thanks to a solid script and pitch-perfect cast, Merchant manages to avoid the cliché trappings of what is otherwise a rather predictable rags-to-riches underdog story. Nick Frost gives one of his best performances to date as the Knight family patriarch, and Vince Vaughn skewers as the sharp-tongued coach who makes and breaks the dreams of wrestling hopefuls. Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Pugh, whose performance should be an inspiration to any young woman.
Wisely, the filmmakers never try to make the film be more than it is, and the result is a breath of fresh air. After months of cinematic hype during awards season, Fighting with My Family is just what we needed.