Thanks not least to a joyful extended cameo from Dwayne Johnson, Fighting With My Family rocks. Penned and directed by Stephen Merchant, here is a British underdog tale done well. Think Billy Elliot meets Rocky meets The Royle Family and you’re there. Following the well furrowed path of sporting film formulae – and showboating a terrific cast of characters along the way – this is a gem as funny and heartfelt as they come.
It was Johnson himself, perusing late night television during a UK film shoot, who discovered the Channel 4 documentary that inspired Fighting With My Family. Recruiting Merchant, Johnson’s Tooth Fairy co-star, to write and direct was a stroke of genius but casting ever-rising talent Florence Pugh in the lead was the master. Pugh plays real life wrestler Saraya-Jade Bevis – better known by her professional pseudonym Paige – a self-proclaimed ‘freak from Norwich’. As we meet her, Raya is a wilfully different young woman, raised to a family of wrestlers, at least half of whom dance on the ring ropes of the law. While her brother Zak (Mary Queen of Scots’ Jack Lowden) has always dreamed of WWE success, Raya finds the path somewhat foisted on her at an early age. And yet, before long, she too has caught the bug and, by the close of a brilliant opening act, we find Raya literally fighting with her family at the behest of a paying crowd.
This isn’t quite the battle to which the title refers, however. That’s more personal and will come later. First, Raya and Zak must each vie for a place in the WWE boot camp of tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside champion-maker Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). She makes it -and jets off to sunny America – he doesn’t, – and is left to father a child in foggy Norfolk. Whilst in the states, Raya makes critical errors in judgement, doubts herself, changes her appearance to fit in and ultimately decides that she had underestimated just how hard a challenge the experience would be. Back home, Zak broods, picks fights in pubs and neglects his family. Everything builds to the 2014 WWE Divas Championship and a final showdown you already know the result of. That’s all well and serviceable but it’s the characters and their comic foibles that really compels a viewing.
What with its coming of age undertones and themes of expectation and self-determination, Fighting With My Family offers a story that could not be more tailored to Hollywood requirements if it tried. Ironically, it is in the mid-point American stretch that the whole thing falters. Lacking on that side of the Atlantic is the small town sense of place the buoys the opening and the vibrancy of the people who live there. Back home, Nick Frost and Lena Headey give their all as Raya’s salt of the Earth parents Patrick and Julia – both of whom are wrestlers in their own right. One particularly lovely instance sees ‘Rowdy Ricky Knight’ and ‘Sweet Saraya’ respond to a fight between their children with advice on how to better perform a head brace and floor one’s appointment. An awkward dinner scene, played opposite the parents of Zak’s posh girlfriend fares less well but there’s delight to be had in Frost and Headley’s gleeful dispatch of profanities: ‘dick me dead and bury me pregnant!’
As has become a standard refrain – across the likes of Lady Macbeth and Outlaw King – Pugh is terrific as Raya. She’s the emotional backbone of a script that never feels overplayed and demonstrates an impressive aptitude for range. Opposite Pugh, Lowden too excels, managing to deliver weight to a story arc that never feels subsidiary to his screen sisters. Admirably, this is a film that takes time to recognise the enormous impact of small acts of kindness and proffers that it is as significant to earn titles and glory as it is to give a blind boy a chance on the backstreets of nowhere in particular. The film’s international aspirations are fine but – as Alpha Papa so exquisitely demonstrated six years ago – Norwich too can stand firm as the home of powerful drama and poignant relationships.
This is, all told, a genuinely sweet film. If the centre sags and the structure offers little you haven’t seen before, these flaws are never at the expense of heart and soul. Compared to the junk food collection of duds WWE Studios have continuously pumped out since 2002’s Scorpion King, Fighting With My Family is that oven cooked favourite you long for when miles from home.