Paige and her brother Zak (Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden) want nothing more than to be professional wrestlers, to be whisked away from their small town in England and into the throes of Wrestlemania in America. They were born into a wrestling family, sure enough, and their dysfunctional, WWE-enthused parents (Nick Frost and Lena Heady) raised them to become champions in and out of the ring. Though…mostly in the ring.
Eventually, Paige gets her chance to attain the WWE Divas belt under the tutelage of NXT coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) and occasionally Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson himself (playing himself and serving as executive producer). But as she takes her family’s outsider spirit with her to the “Hogwarts of professional wrestling,” her brother has to stay behind, rejected and told he doesn’t have “the spark” needed to find the same glory and success in the sport he’s loved all his life.
This sibling tension between Paige and Zak is easily the most tantalizing and deeply realized element to be found in MGM’s Fighting with My Family, which is an all-around crowd-pleasing comedy unafraid to delve into dramatic territory when the story calls for it. There’s a genuine camaraderie balanced by a believable jealously between the two leads, and it plays out efficiently despite them being continents apart for a majority of the film. Great credit goes to the performances, as there’s practically not a weak one in the cast. But also to the bare-knuckle script from writer and director Stephen Merchant (Cemetery Junction, The Office), who adapted this from a true story and documentary about the real-life Paige and her wrestling family.
Like many true-life sports dramas, there’s a noticeable formula undercutting the story. Paige’s arc is a transparent identity crisis (her real name is Saraya, which she often has to correct a few times for laughs, as if she’s forgotten her true self), and there are few surprises to be had. She struggles with being branded a “freak” either overtly or behind her back, and she longs to find her voice. It’s all standard fare for feel-good emotional journeys elevated by fine performances, and Pugh is especially electric in this case, as it’s jarring to recall this is the same practitioner who brought us Lady MacBeth in 2017.
But the film is at its brightest and most heartfelt when the Knight family is all together and united by their unabashed passion, thanks in large part to Frost and Headey, who are both given ample time to draw the audience in with loud, yet charming scenes you can’t quite imagine anyone else pulling off. The title of the film is aptly named, and though the story leads to a conventionally satisfying third act, there’s a lull in the middle when everyone is mostly forced apart, both physically and emotionally.
It’s a testament to Vaughn and Pugh’s dynamic antagonism toward each other that the film still manages to move forward at an acceptable clip, even though most of the audience will wonder how much longer they have to wait for the expected “sports movie moment,” when loss or victory has to be decided and all bets are off, and we all know the drill, even for a film practically advertising the fact that it was made in partnership with WWE Studios.
That’s not to say the middle of the film doesn’t have welcome moments of subversion. Merchant clearly wanted to do something a little different with the “Mean Girls trope,” and he toys with similar ideas that pass the time until the finale, like the smart decision to avoid needless romantic subplots. The film doesn’t explore any one topic below the surface except for its most important message concerning sibling rivalry, and how that can poison not just us and our siblings, but also our children, parents, and even our communities.
And it’s a breath of fresh air to see some more challenging topics—like unplanned pregnancies and criminal backgrounds—treated as realities of life, not melodramatic bullet points trying to force in an extraneous lesson. For all its reliance on sports movie clichés, Fighting with My Family still manages to be fresh and original where it truly counts, and for a lot of viewers, that’s going to make this one a real knockout.