Uplifting ‘Fighting with My Family’ brought me back to wrestling nirvana

Paige (Florence Pugh) wasn’t like the other girls. The product of a rocknrolla family in Norwich, England, she was different than the supermodel types who didn’t like getting their nails broken or their hair messed up. All she wanted to do from the age of 13 was wrestle. All she ended up doing was making history.

While other young girls had posters of Zac Efron and David Beckham on their walls, Paige had The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. While some were infatuated with the latest fashion clothing, Paige was busy diving from the top rope onto her brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), and flipping her mom (Lena Headey) and dad (Nick Frost) in a wrestling ring in front of a crowd.

It is that rugged upbringing that led to the groundbreaking career of Paige, who was the youngest woman to ever win the Divas title in the WWE. Stephen Merchant’s new film, Fighting with My Family, is the first great film of 2019. Equal parts inspiring and hilarious, this biopic is an authentic slice of entertainment that should breed passion from the audience.

When Paige and Zak get the chance to train for WWE Smackdown with Hutch Morgan (a perfectly cast Vince Vaughn), only one of them moves on to NXT, the training site for WWE wrestlers. This unfortunate event causes a riff in the family that sweats and bleeds together, and Merchant (who also wrote the film) finds intriguing ways to balance out the drama and comedy elements of Paige’s story. Anyone who has participated in a sibling rivalry should understand the push and pull element between Paige and Zak.

The laughs come fast and frequent due, and are never forced. It’s refreshing when a film doesn’t pack all of its best comic moments into the trailer. Paige and Zak’s encounter with Dwayne Johnson, where the legend roasts the young duo and includes his famous rally cry from his wrestling days, is hilarious and gets left into the final cut, but there’s several other moments that will cause a cackle. The film never feels too light, but resists the urge to get heavy.

The sport is given an honest depiction here, which truly empowers the film. Seeing Paige go through the training regimen and given the blues of the sport by Vaughn’s Morgan, a casual fan of the sport or an outsider should gain an appreciation for what these athletes go through before the “soap opera in spandex” theater begins.

The cast is flawless, all the way down to the small supporting roles. Pugh is the epitome of tough charisma as Paige, showing a willingness to go all in with the look and spirit of the part. When she exclaims in an arena near the end of the film about being a freak, you’ll love that moment due to the actress’ performance.

Thanks to Johnson, we are getting this cinematic adaptation of her story. It was The Rock who caught the documentary about her family in 2012 while shooting a movie that made him want to assemble a film. Along with his production company, Seven Bucks Productions, Johnson has some fun with his persona in a handful of scenes in this film. No actor on the planet can poke fun at his own legend and presence better than this guy. It’s effortless fun and definitely better to have The Rock around.

Frost and Headey are an absolute riot, digging into their roles with a fine balance of glee and devotion. A scene with Zak’s fiance and her parents at their home is heightened by the comic genius of Frost, whose Ricky lacks a filter when it comes to describing how he met Headey’s Julia. Merchant plays the fiance’s father just right; a squeamish soul among brutes.

Vaughn, still recovering from the miscast in HBO’s True Detective, is at his best when his comic touch is completely unleashed or he’s allowed to bring out his acting chops. Here, playing a ruthless yet caring trainer, the actor gets to employ both tools. Few actors are faster than Vaughn when it comes to delivering a one liner, but the dramatic sequences with Pugh are very well played. He’s having some fun right now, and I hope it continues.

Merchant was an unlikely choice to write and direct the film, but then again, it was kind of perfect in a way. Paige was an unlikely success story, so it’s fitting to find an outsider to the sport to adapt her story. There’s a solid beat for beat rhythm to the film’s tone and pace that never dulls or drops off. Also, when The Rock appoints you to make a movie, there’s one correct answer and it has three letters instead of two.

I grew up a wrestling fanatic. Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan posters shared my walls with local heroes like Brett Hull and Ray Lankford. I’ll never forget watching Warrior and Hogan battle at the Kiel Opera House on a large movie theater screen. I painted my face, dove off a makeshift bunk bed/belt buckle, and cried when my favorite wrestler lost. As I grew older, I enjoyed the camaraderie and poignancy of the sport and its participants. The brotherhood and sisterhood of the sport intrigues me to this day.

Fighting with My Family brought all those exhilarating memories from my younger days back in a vivid rush. I was that little kid again watching mortal beings do impossible things with their body.

Thanks to a deft idea from Johnson, dedicated creating from Merchant, and a perfect cast, this movie recalled the passion of wrestling out of my soul and made me laugh nearly out of my chair.

Just wait until the end. You won’t see it coming. Fighting with My Family sneaks up and floors you.

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