Wrestling definitely gets a bad rap. We’re now living in a post-The Wrestler world, of course, and Darren Aronofsky’s searing sports drama laid bare every chair to the face, foot to the stomach, and discreet slice of the razor that causes the most extreme participants genuine pain each and every match.
Wrestling might be a live soap opera, but it’s one that packs a hefty punch. Still, though, as Nick Frost’s character Patrick Knight still needs to refute to persisting detractors, wrestling isn’t “fake”, simply “fixed”.
Stephen Merchant’s solo directing debut, Fighting With My Family, might lack the physical agony of Aronofsky’s more insular drama, but it more than makes up for any absence of teeth-clenching moments by loading every swing, both in and out of the ring, with stubborn and over-powering passion.
Florence Pugh’s Paige is a well-executed protagonist and so easy to root for. At once a ball of insecurities and an enduring mask of self-assuredness, her journey from aloof, savant outcast to one of WWE’s most endearing performers hits familiar biopic beats, but this crowd-pleaser ensures you’ll never be resentful of its numerous clichés.
While the narrative rarely takes an unexpected turn, Merchant lends a refreshing self-awareness to the familiar underdog story. Like even the most thrilling of wrestling arcs, the conclusion has already been pre-established by a history of narrative traditions, but the biopic formula is given a kick in the teeth with a self-admittedly bizzaro subject matter.
Hinging on the audience’s familiarity with the exploitative nature of wrestling’s divas, Paige is a refreshing unlikely hero as a skilled wrestler who doesn’t let California’s sexist expectations of the female body, nor the vitriolic heckling of her first experiences inside a professional ring, prevent her from maintaining her truthful persona as a freaky goth girl from Norwich.
Much of the magic lies with the supporting cast, and how success and fame can fundamentally shift the dynamics between you and those back home. Nick Frost is deployed perfectly as the gruff, wrestling fanatic dad, determined to bring home a championship belt for the family no matter what the cost.
Lena Headey does get a little lost in the shuffle, unfortunate for a story so focused on the debates behind the stigma and intricacies behind female wrestling. However, she’s always a welcome presence when the in-house grappling between the domineering male characters gets a little boisterous.
Paige’s conflicting throughline is with her brother Zak, a bruiser of a performance from Jack Lowden. Their arguments outside the ring are occasionally delivered with a stagey, manufactured edge, but it’s all in favour of cultivating that hokey, soap opera flavour that WWE has become infamous for. The drama may feel incidental, but when the once unstoppable brother/sister duo start duking it out for real inside the ring, every slam feels like a genuine betrayal.
The appearances of wrestling superstar turned blockbuster action hero Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson should give a clue from the kind of tonal balance Stephen Merchant is aiming for here. Big, bold, and dramatically unsophisticated, but hopelessly watchable and undeniably likeable. The encompassing product may feel a little slight, but Paige herself steps in as easily the most iconic cinematic British heroine of this year.
Written by Lucas Hill-Paul