The Pitch: In the early 2010s, Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) is a British independent pro wrestler with a particularly odd pedigree. After all, she’s the daughter of England’s famed Knight family, longtime staples of the Britwres scene. Her parents Julia and Ricky (Lena Headey and Nick Frost) are both veteran wrestlers and local promoters, running their ramshackle company and frequently roping the neighborhood kids into the family business. Her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) is a seasoned hand, Saraya is talented in her own right, and their combined skills eventually wind up getting them a tandem tryout with WWE, which as the film will insistently remind you at every opportunity is the biggest pro wrestling company in the world. But when Saraya gets called up to their developmental program and Zak doesn’t, both have to struggle with the paths their lives are taking, especially when Saraya’s has the chance to lead to global stardom.
A WWE Studios Film About the WWE, Produced By WWE, As a Testament to WWE’s Greatness: Fighting With My Family finds itself in the curious position of being based on actual events that didn’t take place all that long ago, in a medium built on misdirecting the audience, within a company notoriously obsessed with micro-managing its own public image. If discussion of WWE feels like a sidebar from an assessment of the film itself, it’s not; WWE’s branding is so aggressively omnipresent over every aspect of the film that the company winds up situating itself as its own key character in the film.
As such, since Saraya Knight would go on to become the boundary-busting womens’ champion Paige in real life, Fighting With My Family presents a meticulously curated rags-to-riches story in which the independent scene has never been grimier, the bright lights of WWE arena shows have never been more blinding, and famous WWE alum Dwayne Johnson was conveniently involved at every phase of Paige’s ascent to stardom. (Johnson, who clearly shot his part in the film in the span of a few total hours, mostly just bellows old wrestling catchphrases for audience pops. Hey, it’s what made him a star to begin with.) It lends a disingenuous sheen to much of the film, a corporate-washed rendition of the struggles toward wrestling stardom that imparts appropriately clean-cut lessons on message.
From the omnipresent logos to the real-world inset footage, Fighting With My Family repeatedly chases after the illusion of versimilitude, but its glossy rendition of a chaotic subculture leaves the viewer feeling like there was a lot more to the story than the film encompasses, and that much of what it chooses to include could have been left on the cutting room floor instead. While the film is pure of heart, it also comes off as more than a bit insincere after a while, more of a branding exercise than any kind of an authentic portrait of the strange athletics-performance industry in which it’s set.
Day and Knight: Where Fighting With My Family fares better is, unsurprisingly enough, the rapport between its tight-knit cast of misfits. If writer-director Stephen Merchant never seems to get a full handle on when to have wrestling exist as the scripted show it is in reality, or when to treat it as entirely “real” in context, some of the film’s best scenes emerge when he’s allowed to step away from the ring and delve into the pathology of the kind of person who’d make their livelihood in pro wrestling.
The Knights are a fascinating subject for this treatment, and the across-the-board strong cast lends a depth to the family’s dysfunctional relationship that the broad screenplay often sidesteps. From Saraya’s observation that she was named after her mother’s ring persona, to Zak’s struggles with the reality that he might be yet another local wrestler who never makes it out of the gym-and-lodge circuit, there are brief instances throughout Fighting when Merchant explores the particular woe of waiting for audiences to embrace an exaggerated version of yourself, and the painful rejection so often accompanying it. Easily the film’s best scene comes when Vince Vaughn‘s WWE trainer pulls Saraya aside to share a parable about a journeyman he once knew, who never realized his main-event aspirations. Some people don’t get to step out of their boxes, and it might be unfair, but it’s also just life.
The Verdict: If only that level of keen observation carried over to the film at large. Too much of Fighting With My Family situates Saraya’s story as a limp fish-out-of-water comedy, mixing brief glimpses at the grueling all-around process of breaking into the industry with endless gags about a pale English wrestler moving to sunny Florida. Between its continuous insistence on broad humor and its lack of broader context about the industry period in which Paige came up (she was among the first womens’ wrestlers in WWE to break out when the division gained traction after years of public degradation), Fighting With My Family ultimately reveals itself as a shallow take on a genuinely fascinating story.
Where’s It Playing? Nationwide now, and in every commercial break of every WWE program for the past month or so.