Eamonn Rafferty’s review published on Letterboxd:
Fighting With My Family is sports drama biopic based off the Channel 4 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, focusing on the lives of Bevis/Knight family, in particular the daughter Saraya, who we follow as she is called up to tryout for the WWE and what she overcomes to become the wrestler we’ll all know as Paige. Initially when this was reported back in early 2017, admittedly I was bemused to Dwayne Johnson pushing through with this wrestling biopic project, teaming up with Film 4 and WWE Studios, and bringing on board Stephen Merchant of all people to direct and write the script. Then I wondered how long it would take for us to see the film, after all its first trailer was released back around April of last year. Now fast-forward to the end of February and the films arrived and thankfully it has been worth the wait.
The reason why this project was put together was down to the fact that Saraya/Paige’s story is a true underdog story like you’ve seen before, as we witness this young woman who has this dream of being in the WWE and becoming champion, having to move away from her family, feel like an outcast due to her appearance and upbringing, believing that she may be out of her depth. What is evident throughout the film is the heart that it has, immediately making the Bevis/Knight family relatable as this working-class family that run their own wrestling promotion (World Association of Wrestling), travelling and wrestling together. They may be blunt when it comes to their communication skills with others (as evidenced in the dinner scene when Zak’s girlfriends parents meet the family), but it’s clear to see the warmth and love they have for each other, proud of who they are now despite their past mistakes (which they don’t shy away from addressing). While the film could’ve taken the conventional approach of focusing solely on Paige once she gets called up by the WWE to go to Florida for the developmental stage, it’s bittersweet as Zak doesn’t get his dream opportunity, and left behind to train the rest of the youngsters at training and start a family, whilst growing simmering resentment for not getting picked and jealously towards his sister getting a spot. It’s an interesting balance act and one I think they pulled off well and made the film better all for it. The film well directed by Stephen Merchant, with some nice long takes in the first act in and around the wrestling ring, the choreographed ring-action itself feels seamless in how it is cut together. It also helps that I found itself to be funnier than the majority of comedies released in the last few years. There’s an interaction that Ricky Knight has with another wrestler, trying to figure out what weapons they could use in an upcoming match and then there’s of course that dinner scene that I found to be hilarious, then there’s of course a tongue-in-cheek moment in the films epilogue before the credits roll. Florence Pugh’s star has been on the rise recently with her previous performances in Lady Macbeth, Outlaw King and miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, and I thought she was great here as Paige. Pugh conveys plenty of emotion with her expressions as this socially awkward young woman who is plucked from everything she knows and thrown into what is essentially the lion’s den, surrounded by people she believes to be much prettier and idealistic as to what the company wants. She’s fiery, yet likeable and Pugh compliments that two things together perfectly with her performance. Jack Lowden is solid as Zak, the supportive brother who eventually turns into a ball of anger and self-pity and as sees his dream crash before his eyes. You feel for him as we witness this and especially when he breaks down over it. Nick Frost and Lena Headey are a terrific pairing as Ricky and Saraya Knight, the warm, loving, unconventional parents. Vince Vaughn is also solid here as WWE coach Hutch Morgan, providing tough love to Paige and some lessons as to why things in the wrestling industry is tougher than it seems. Dwayne Johnson also has a limited role as himself and The Rock persona, providing some of the films more memorable moments.
For those that are aware of Paige’s wrestling career in the WWE, be prepared for the liberties that the film takes with her tale as it displays the cinematic version that everyone can follow properly and fits the narrative and more importantly, a suitable runtime for the film. Primarily what’s left on the cutting room floor is Paige’s NXT career, whilst we get the developmental training sessions and a few moments of in-ring promo/action, it breezes through to her big WWE debut, brushing her NXT Women’s Champion title reign under the rug and that’s a shame considering that Paige was the first woman to hold that title but in terms of the films narrative I can understand why they didn’t include it. For those that don’t pay attention to WWE as a whole, I don’t think they’ll care about that fact but if you’re into all things from the WWE, especially NXT, then this exclusion may slightly irk you. While it drops that piece of history, the film does feel like they could’ve spliced ten minutes off the runtime with the training sessions as it feels like we spent alot of time focusing on Paige’s progression and determination.
With a terrific ensemble performance from the likes of Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, Dwayne Johnson, and a terrific lead performance from Florence Pugh, Fighting With My Family is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser and one that could be a sleeper hit of 2019. Best of all, due to its underdog sports tale, you don’t have to be a wrestling fan to watch it, and blends its drama and comedy well together thanks to Stephen Merchants script. Personally I want a spinoff film where we focus on the blind kid becoming a wrestler because i’ll watch that right now if I could.