Fighting With My Family tells the story Saraya Bevis, a modest teenage girl from Norwich who becomes a celebrated champion WWE wrestler in the US. It sounds like a fun if unlikely sports movie that’s going to tick all the genre cliches, like Eddie the Eagle but unburdened by having to tell a well known story. Let’s face it, if that film hadn’t had to follow some semblance of truth then Eddie would have won that gold medal at the end just like Paul Bettany won Wimbledon. The thing is that remarkably this story is true; this girl really did go from Norfolk to Florida to train as a professional fighter and did win a massively unlikely victory in her first match.
Of course the issue here is that truth in the mainstream American wrestling arena is tricky little thing to get hold of. Did this girl go out in her adult wrestling debut, in front of thousands and thousands of fans and against all feasible odds beat the over confident and snarky champion? Well, all those people saw it happen live alongside a TV audience of millions more so it certainly played out that way. Is it true though? Not really.
It is common knowledge that these wrestling matches are scripted. In fact you only have to watch one, with the laboured lines and feigned anger, to work that out. The whole thing is theatre more than it is sport. This film plays the dramatic result of the final scuffle like it’s a huge surprise for everyone involved. Victor and vanquished are left reeling by the astonishing turn of events. Friends and family jump and cheer, beside themselves with joy. The coach sagely nods, relieved that his faith in this prodigy was justified. It’s all so narratively satisfying and is a wonderful wonderful movie moment. In reality though when they told young Saraya that she was going to fight, they also told her what moves to use and that her competitor was going to let her win. Wikipedia won’t tell you any of this because the industry works hard to maintain the shallow artifice and the web and the media seem to respect this but that’s how it went down. The film itself states the fact that wrestling is fixed early on but then seems to forget it has told us this and plays the end like it’s Chariots of Fire. This does take something away from the power and emotion of that big moment.
WWE stands for World Wrestling Entertainment which probably tells you everything you need to know. The organisation did publicly admit that the whole thing is staged in 1989 when they were asked to pay the taxes required for competitive athletic commissions but they still like to pretend it’s not.
For all of this though Fighting With My Family did help me understand exhibition wrestling in a way I’d not before. Yes the fights are set up but that doesn’t take anything away from the incredible abilities of those involved. It is all theatre but it’s like dance theatre where the performers are engaged in complicated and skilled choreographies that involve great physical strength and prowess. Also there is a real danger that these people could get hurt. They may be letting someone throw them around and drop them on their heads but they are still getting thrown around and dropped on their heads. Fighting With My Family is not a sports movie then, it’s not Rocky; it’s A Chorus Line, it’s Black Swan, it’s 42nd Street.
With this established there is much to enjoy in the film. Florence Pugh plays Saraya who takes the stage name Paige, named after her favourite pop culture witch. (Following this naming convention my wrestler moniker would be Sukie Ridgemont.) Pugh is great as are coach Vince Vaughn, who kind of plays a washed out version of his character from Dodgeball, and The Rock, who kind of plays a ramped up version of himself. The strength of the film though is that it doesn’t just concentrate on her new wrestling ‘family’ in the States, it spends a lot of time with her real wrestling family in the north of England. Saraya/Paige’s parents and brothers are also fighters and this part of the story gives the film its heart.
Nick Frost and Lena Headey are sweet as the working class mum and dad and most of the laughs centre around their performances. This is not the easy comedy suggested by the trailer and the presence of writer/director Stephen Merchant though. There is some really effective drama around Jack Lowden’s Zak; the sibling that doesn’t get selected for the training program and has to deal with sibling jealousy and the end of the dream he’s had since childhood. Lowden might even be the standout here. He is almost unrecognisable from his equally good turns in Dunkirk and Mary Queen of Scots and is no doubt only at the beginning of an impressive and varied career. There is cliche in his narrative but just as with the rest of the film there is real truth unconcealed beneath.
Is this one for the kids?
The film is rated 12A for swearing and mild (and witty) sex references but the fights are bloodless just as they are in the real WWE ring.
The Ripley Factor:
Fighting With My Family is the real story of a young woman who rose to the top of her field through strength and determination so it ticks all the right boxes without being demonstrably feminist. Pro-Wrestling is a world where women are definitely objectified and the film tackles this in interesting ways. Paige’s female colleagues are where they are because of their looks and while the movie sets its protagonist up as the admirable opposite none of the characters are left as two dimensional caricatures. It should be noted that Paige’s wrestling outfit is more modest than the one worn by the real Paige in the real world in those ‘real’ moments.