Inspirational underdog sports stories never go out of style and if you’re ever wondering why that is, Fighting with My Family provides some ample proof on why this subgenre endures. Though its a story that involves people beating the heck out of each other, there’s also a tender heart to this story that makes it shockingly effective as a piece of emotionally affecting storytelling. I have no real knowledge of wrestling, much less the world of wrestling conglomerate WWE, yet I found myself totally engaged by this tale of two wrestlers chasing life-long dreams and dealing with a reality that never quite lives up to those fantasies that they’ve clung to for so long.
Based on a true story, Saraya (Florence Pugh) is a Norwich, England woman growing up in a household consisting of her parents, Patrick (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), and her older brother Zach (Jack Lowden) that’s all about wrestling, both in terms of making ends meet financially and in life in general. Saraya and her family live and breathe this sport and both Saraya and Zach have entertained the dream of fighting in the WWE. When they get the chance to audition for WWE training sessions, Saraya manages to get accepted…but Zach is rejected. Now Saraya, who takes on the name of Paige, is dealing with all the difficulties of training for a wrestling career in Florida while Zach is back home grappling with how his big chance to achieve his dream has escaped his grasp.
Can you guess where this story is going? Possibly but that doesn’t make the road to that destination any less surprising. Writer/director Stephen Merchant may not have the most visually distinctive directing style yet (though his direction is still visually competent at least) but his script for Fighting with My Family is absolutely a winner since it has the bright idea to offer up a delightfully high amount of surprising elements in how it tells this potentially routine story. For one thing, the depiction of Paige and her family leans heavily on real-life family dynamics, particularly in how family members can be squabbling one minute and then be reaffirming their undying affection for one another in the next moment. This family of British wrestlers could have become one-dimensional caricatures in a lesser movie but Merchant has the good sense to weave in this realistic family dynamic into their interactions to ensure they remain emotionally engaging individuals.
The movies clear affection for these characters is also demonstrated in how all four of them are allowed to demonstrate nuanced behavior that makes them feel like actual people. Paige’s parents, for instance, are a hoot as just wrestling aficionados but any time they show off how much they clearly love their kids, including their behavior during a major crisis moment between Paige and Zach, it totally warmed my heart. The level of fondness Fighting with My Family has for its characters as well as the fondness its characters have for each other is such a wonderfully realized and surprising element and perhaps the prominent part of the production that helps make it such a standout movie, inspirational sports-oriented or otherwise.
Also helping the feature stand out from the pack is the lead performance from Florence Pugh. Having only seen her in Outlaw King before this, Fighting with My Family served as my first introduction to Pugh as a lead performer and I can totally see why she’s become such a big deal as an actor (she’s also starring in 2019 movies from directors Ari Aster and Greta Gerwig) Just like the screenplay, Pugh does marvelous work embracing the unorthodox traits of her character with tangible down-to-Earth elements, she brings so much humanity to the role that makes her a character you get totally invested in with ease. Pugh’s dry delivery of her assorted comedic lines is similarly top-notch and one of the most entertaining parts of an all-around great lead performance.
Nick Frost, Lena Headey and Jack Lowden also turn in stellar work as Paige’s family members while, to my shock, Vince Vaughn actually equips himself well in a supporting role as Paige’s coach and I’m saying that as someone who couldn’t stand Vaughn’s acting back in the olden days of 2005-2015 when he was headlining comedies. The all-around exceptional performances fused with Merchant’s thoughtful script make for a wonderful time in Fighting with My Family, though really, you don’t even need to know those parts of the production are good to know this movie is worth seeing. The fact that Fighting with My Family features a montage of training and female friendship set to Takin’ Care of Business alone should alert people that this is a good movie!