A film about professional wrestling is always going to be a bit of a gamble. It’s a sport that isn’t really a sport, given that outcomes are predetermined. It’s full of oiled people with silly names engaging in rather silly trash talk. It’s fair to say, it’s not for everyone.
It’s the predetermined part that, seemingly, would interfere with the drama. If Rocky had sat down to choreograph his fight with Apollo Creed, and discuss the result, it’s unlikely to have worked for audiences.
So for a wrestling film to work, it’s really important that the script knows what the film is truly about – and it won’t be the sport itself (or ‘sports entertainment’).
Fighting With My Family is based on a 2012 Channel 4 documentary, which told the story of real life WWE Wrestler, Paige. From Norwich, Paige hailed from a family of wrestlers, raised into the sport by her father, Patrick Bevis (better known as ‘Rowdy Ricky Knight’).
In this dramatisation, Ricky (Nick Frost) and wife Julia ‘Sweet Saraya’ Bevis (Lena Headey) have raised three children. The eldest spends much of the running time in prison, having gone off the rails after a failed audition for WWE. The two younger children are Zak ‘Zodiac’ Bevis (Jack Lowden) and Paige (born Saraya-Jade Bevis, originally using the stage name Britani, and portrayed here by Florence Pugh).
We start with a prologue of Zak and Paige wrestling each other as children, and Ricky, as proprietor of the World Association of Wresting (WAW), convincing his daughter to join in that evening’s programme, in order to help him out. Moving forward to the present day, Zak is training all of the teens and young adults involved in WAW, and both he and Paige dream of the big time.
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When the WWE comes to the O2 in London, Paige and Zak (videos of whom have been heavily promoted to the WWE, by their father) are invited to audition for their shot at joining the big time. With Paige selected, and Zak turned down, we follow her attempts to fit in and make it through the tough training and selection programme, and Zak’s attempts to deal with losing the only thing he ever really wanted.
After the first few minutes of Fighting With My Family it seemed certain that the film would wear out its welcome – and very quickly – by sneering at the material and the people involved. The family are rough, crude, and have a criminal background. Visually, Ricky is plastered in really poor quality tattoos, graced with an ugly mohawk, and notably foul-mouthed at all times. Julia is a typical Lena Headey creation – tough, straightforward, and seeming at times to lack warmth. Finally, the two children seem to be there purely to appease their parents. It was tough to see this as a situation, or people, for which an audience could root.
Early sections of the film deal with Zak learning he’s an expectant father, and meeting his girlfriend’s parents (Julia Davis, and director Stephen Merchant). The section where the parents come to dinner plays as very typical of Merchant’s work. It is socially awkward, with the parents polite, nice, well-to-do people, taken aback by Ricky openly making out with his wife at the dinner table, and his stories of time inside for “mainly violence… bit of armed robbery”. It’s very funny, but it does invite audiences to judge the family in a negative fashion.
Key to engaging the audience is the audition process. The process is run by a man named Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). As the film progresses, we will see there is a lot of Hutch in the Zak character too. Hutch understands failure, but he also understands that wrestling is a business, and audience appeal is everything. Through the process of selection, Hutch works to tease out of prospects why they want this. This is vital, as Paige had seemed to be living her parents’ dream, not her own. She was named by her mother, after her mother’s own stage name; she took her first go at wrestling to keep father happy, and the ambition of her and Zak could be seen to be born of having few other options in life. That Paige voices her passion, and Zak suffers so profoundly when his goals are not met, is so important to taking the audience with them.
During the Florida-based selection process, Paige has to learn that the key to success is less about wrestling and more about crowd engagement. It’s about her finding out who she is, and channelling that into a stage persona. Placed alongside three fellow female hopefuls, all of whom have dancing and modelling backgrounds (i.e. no inherent wrestling ability or experience), Paige has to accept she tends to stereotype people in the same way the world has looked down upon her family. Some of the scenes where she engages with these ladies is very much out of The Office or Extras playbook: the comedy of the excruciating social faux pas. It’s very funny, decidedly heartwarming, and anchored by terrific performances from Pugh and Vaughn.
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The family are also kept very much in view. Zak starts to make trouble as he sees his sister taking his dream from him. The film is nuanced enough to show us that he is happy for her, but that life is just a litte more complicated than that. Ricky is making money off the back of Paige’s success, but the movie has done the work in establishing the family’s financial difficulties well enough that we understand why he would take what he could, while he could. There remains a lingering whiff, however, of the suspicion that Ricky is less encouraging the dreams of his children, and more living his own dreams through them. This does resolve during Paige’s visit home for Christmas, late in the film’s running time.
Fighting With My Family can take its place alongside films such as East is East in providing a terrific, funny, yet warm look at working class British life. Stephen Merchant – who started life pointing a very static camera at very static actors in an underwhelming office – has done a very professional job in presenting big screen product. He has presented his characters sensitively, and with nuance. The lingering suspicion aside that there is just a little of him left that wants to laugh at the material, he has produced a truly excellent piece of work.