Sundance Film Review: Everyone Wins in ‘Fighting with My Family’

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2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: One of the more unusual inclusions in the Sundance lineup this year was a mysterious Surprise Screening that appeared on the schedule. That film was soon after revealed as the world premiere of Stephen Merchant‘s new film, “Fighting with My Family.”

Florence Pugh stars in this charming true story about Paige (Saraya-Jade Bevis), a beloved champion of the WWE. In her regular life, Paige is Raya Knight, the daughter of parents who found each other through wrestling. Growing up in a wrestling family has its challenges and its joys, and the Knight family knows them all. Raya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are local stars in their town in northern England. They also run a gym and teach children the ins and outs of WWE-style fighting. Fighting is the Knight family’s love language.

Life changes one day when Zak and Raya get a call from the WWE inviting them to audition. And things are further complicated when Raya makes the cut, but Zak doesn’t. Raya finds herself all alone in the United States, isolated from the only people that ever truly made her feel like she belonged.

“Fighting with My Family” is, in some ways, your standard biopic/family dramedy. But writer/director Stephen Merchant uses familiar structure to set his film against a background of a world many people know of, but don’t really know. There is much more under the surface in this world of scripted machismo, and Merchant smartly brings that out in the form of characters that feel familiar without being entirely stereotypical.

Nick Frost and Lena Headey star as Raya’s ultra-supportive parents. To outsiders, they are unrefined, perhaps simple, and certainly over the top. Frost, in particular, plays a dad that is full of big ideas and is easily dismissed as dumb. He has the privilege of unleashing some of the best insults and one-liners and is certainly the most quotable of the bunch. After years of scheming to win the game of thrones, it’s great to see Headey take on something much more subtle and light-hearted. She is just as funny as Frost and the two have very believable and sweet chemistry together.

The cast also includes Vince Vaughn as Hutch. Hutch coaches all the wrestlers aspiring to move to the main stage. It’s a fairly typical coach role, in which he sees something special in Paige and doesn’t mind telling her. But he also won’t be surprised if she can’t cut it. Stephen Merchant has a small role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend, Courtney. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time but serves as the wrestling outsider. He provides the hilarious bewilderment of an audience member who has ever sat through a wrestling event without any idea what is happening.

Several WWE stars make cameo appearances, including Paige herself. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson shows up among them, with actual contributions to the story. He is also very funny and effective. However, the marketing may be a bit misleading. His is definitely a cameo, showing up in just two scenes.

This story belongs entirely to Paige and Florence Pugh. The young actress’ star has been on the rise for the past several years as she has taken on increasingly robust supporting roles. Here, she carries the film with strength and dignity, sharing just the right amount of vulnerability in a girl who is supposed to be so tough. Despite the pierced lip and the overall goth look, and the “don’t mess with me” expression permanently etched into her face, Pugh plays Paige as someone who really does just want to be accepted for who she is. Which is what her family has always done for her. Now, can she find that with the rest of the world?

The filmmaking is pretty standard, and it hits all the expected plot points, but “Fighting with My Family” has a tremendous amount of heart. It’s the kind of feel-good movie that families can enjoy together. Even if your family isn’t into wrestling, they have something that brings you all together. And Paige’s story taps into that. This is a film about dreams. But it is also a film about learning to see yourself as the people closest to you do. Learning to chase the things you want, but never letting go of how you became who you are.

“Fighting with My Family” may be a typical family dramedy/biopic. But it’s a good one that is easy to enjoy, fun to laugh with, and may even teach a thing or two. Namely, that even if wrestling is scripted, that doesn’t mean it’s fake. But you don’t have to like wrestling to enjoy this movie. You only have to have an open mind.

“Fighting with My Family” is distributed by MGM and will be in theaters on February 14.

GRADE: (★★★)

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