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(Pro) wrestling your demons – ‘Fighting with My Family’

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Have you ever wondered where pro wrestlers come from? From what kind of environment does a professional wrestling star spring?

“Fighting with My Family” tells the story of how one particular wrestler – WWE star Paige – came to reach the pinnacle of her chosen pursuit. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (yes, THAT Stephen Merchant), the film is based on Max Fisher’s 2012 documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family.” It’s the story of an English family and their devotion to the world of professional wrestling – a devotion that would help one of them reach the top of the heap.

It’s also a funny and surprisingly heartwarming story about what it means to be a family and about how those family ties can both help and hinder efforts at self-betterment. Sure, it’s a bit of on-brand fantasy courtesy of WWE, but instead of feeling calculated and cynical, there’s an unexpected sincerity to it that proves quite engaging.

The Knights live in Norwich, England. They are devotees of professional wrestling – patriarch Ricky (Nick Frost, “Slaughterhouse Rulez”) and matriarch Julia (Lena Headey, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) operate their own wrestling promotion and school, raising their children to become lovers of the craft (as well as participants) from a young age.

Both Saraya (Florence Pugh, “Outlaw King”) and Zak (Jack Lowden, “Mary Queen of Scots”) grow into fine performers. Both love wrestling – and both are holding out hope for an opportunity to take their game to the next level. Specifically, to the WWE. Eventually, the right person sees their tape and they are invited to a tryout led by talent scout and coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn, “Brawl in Cell Block 99”). Both perform admirably at the tryout, but it is only Saraya who is chosen to take the next step.

And so Saraya flies off to America to join NXT, the WWE’s Florida-based developmental organization. She quickly learns that there’s a whole lot more to it than simply knowing how to wrestle – she’s dealing with fitness and trying to figure out a persona (she changes her name to Paige, after her favorite character on the TV show “Charmed”) and how to cut a decent promo. She’s also butting heads with her fellow female prospects, leaving her feeling isolated and alone.

Meanwhile, Zak is left in England, trying to deal with his disappointment at not making the cut for the sake of his family. He struggles to deal with the wrestling school and resents the time he’s spending in the ring; it’s a lot of work for not much financial return.

Paige reaches a point where she wants to quit. She’s alienated herself from her fellow competitors and Hutch is encouraging her to give up. When she heads home for the holidays, she gets off the plane in England wondering if she has what it takes – or if she’ll even go back at all.

Obviously, this movie wouldn’t exist if Paige hadn’t achieved her goals, but that’s OK. “Fighting with My Family” is about the journey rather than the destination, making an interesting parallel with professional wrestling, which is also about much more than predetermined match results. Knowing the outcome ahead of time has zero impact on your enjoyment of the experience.

The notion of a pro wrestling family is a fascinating one – particularly a family like this one that operates on the margins. There’s a bootstrappiness to the whole story; it’s lousy with underdog appeal. And anytime you’ve got a sports movie, putting an underdog into the mix tends to be a no-brainer.

Admittedly, Stephen Merchant isn’t necessarily the guy you’d expect to write and direct a film about a WWE Diva and her wrestling family. He’s more of a TV guy – this is only his second feature film as a director and the other was 10 years ago (and co-directed) – but if you take a step back, it’s not hard to see the ways in which it might appeal. There’s a dry wit to the movie that should be out of step with the over-the-top nature of pro wrestling, but instead manages to fit nicely – two opposing tastes that taste great together.

The performances are strong. Pugh finds the right balance of strength and vulnerability (and finds ways to look competent in the ring as well). Lowden does good work, though his whole arc feels a bit too pat. Frost and Headey are an exceptional pairing; both of them have cranked the knob to 11 and snapped it off. They are a delight. Vaughn runs through the standard “tough trainer with a heart of gold” shtick, but he makes it work. Merchant gives himself a role as well, as the timid and confused father to Zak’s girlfriend.

There are wrestling cameos, of course. The film’s promotion has featured Dwayne Johnson prominently – more prominently than his screen time probably warrants. He’s got a couple of scenes, but it’s basically an extended cameo. Other familiar faces who turn up include the Big Show and Shamus. And of course, there’s plenty of archival footage featuring other prominent WWE figures.

“Fighting with My Family” could have been nothing more than a brand-driven hagiographic effort to cash in. Instead, it’s something far more nuanced – a story of one woman’s drive to succeed while dealing with how that success could impact her family. All in all, it’s a far better movie than it needed to be.

[4 out of 5]

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