Though Fighting With My Family carves out its own good-natured niche in the sports-movie genre, it’s also a callback to the kind of funny, uplifting drama that Britain seemed to crank out annually back in the 1990s.
Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Billy Elliott — amusing, uplifting true stories of working-class Brits and their quirky endeavors. These are the kind of folks we meet in Stephen Merchant’s affecting new film, drawn from a BBC documentary about a family of grapplers toiling happily away in the barnstorming, DIY, under-the-radar echelons of the British wrestling circuit.
Merchant starts the film with approximated home movies of the Norwich-based Knight family — when brother and sister go at it as toddlers, dad (Nick Frost) doesn’t break up the fight, but instead offers informed advice about how to administer an effective takedown, or wriggle out of a hold.
No tap outs in the Knight household.
Cut to young adulthood, when Saraya (Florence Pugh) and brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have taken up the family trade — passing out fliers in the street, slipping in to character on weekend evenings, often fighting each in their own semipro version of ritualized, fixed-but-not-fake performances we see in the more glamorous WWE.
The movie takes an affectionate look at the special appeal of wrestling (Frost is particularly winning as a family’s patriarch/impresario), and it is he who helps arrange an audition for Saraya and Zak when a WWE recruiter named Hutch (Vince Vaughn) shows up in the U.K. looking for new WWE talent.
Hutch chooses Saraya for the WWE’s Florida training program, but Zak doesn’t make the cut, leaving a rift between brother and sister. With Saraya in the States (where she takes on the stage name Paige), Fighting With My Family has the familiar structure of a fish-out-of-water comedy. But it has real feeling as well, built around a platonic love story centered, unusually, on brother and sister.
Paige is alone and a little lost in Florida without coach/ring partner/best friend Zak — their “breakup” hits her particularly hard. Zak can’t let go of his disappointment, and loses sight of the important work of training and mentoring wrestling hopefuls that he does in his local community.
It’s easy enough to guess where this is going, but the movie gets the details right, and the relationships play out in a satisfying way, aided by Merchant’s consistently funny writing and light touch — and perhaps the input of the film’s producer.
The story of the fighting Knights was first captured in a BBC documentary, which caught the attention of actor and WWE star Dwayne Johnson (himself the product of a wrestling family), who produced this movie and has an extended cameo as himself, on hand when Paige gets her big break.
The movie’s only weakness is that it lacks big-time’s wrestling’s showmanship and instinct for the big moment, and Paige’s decisive bout lacks expected punch. Still, it’s another good performance from Pugh, who did an entirely different kind of wrestling in Lady Macbeth, but with the same ferocity and passion.
Directed by Stephen Merchant. With Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Dwayne Johnson, Vince Vaughn, Lena Headey and Nick Frost. Distributed by MGM.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Parents’ guide: PG-13 (violence)