What were you doing at age 13? Chances are you weren’t sporting a leotard alongside your mom in a tag-team professional wrestling match organized by your dad. But that’s the life that Saraya Bevis knew, growing up in mid-2000s Norwich, England. Those, um, humble beginnings are the starting-off point for Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family, a hilarious and touching (and surprisingly universal) chronicle of the rise of WWE superstar Paige.
Florence Pugh stars as Saraya (who wrestled as “Britani Knight” as a teen), a pale, Goth kid, who, alongside brother “Zodiac” Zac (Jack Lowdon), is the star of the family business. And that business is the World Association of Wrestling, led by mom Julia (Lena Headey) and dad Ricky (Nick Frost) in an effort to keep food on the table. Saraya and Zac have dreams of the big time, though, constantly submitting audition tapes to the WWE. And then the call comes—open auditions are being held in London.
The rigorous tryout, lorded over by hard-nosed coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), results in Saraya scoring a trip to America for WWE boot camp, while Zac is told bluntly to give up on his dream and go back home. After initially refusing to go without him, Saraya eventually listens to Zac and heads to Florida to try to make it all the way to the WWE. (Spoiler—she makes it.)
Based on a 2012 documentary by Max Fisher, Fighting with My Family succeeds primarily because it takes all the pitfall-inducing tropes of underdog sports movies and turns them into something that feels wholly real and original. Sure we have a training montage as Paige struggles to keep up with the more fit and more qualified competitors. Sure we have a scene when her drill-sergeant coach tells her to quit. And sure you can practically hear the Rocky theme as Paige finally earns her spot in the WWE. But first-time director Merchant (who also wrote the screenplay and inserted himself in a cameo role) breathes so much life into the film that it succeeds almost despite itself. The script is smart, crisp, and funny, and takes a sport with a fervent, proprietary fan base and makes it across-the-board watchable. Of course, having Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on board as executive producer (and in a minor role as himself) doesn’t hurt. Johnson, in fact, was the one who handed the project to Merchant; they first met as co-stars in 2010’s Tooth Fairy.
As Paige, Pugh is absolutely luminous (despite being, you know, pale and Goth), and she absolutely carries the film, from start to finish. What the character lacks in couth and refinement, Pugh makes up for with charisma and an utterly demanding presence. Those who only know her (if at all) from her bit part in Liam Neeson’s The Commuter or as the queen consort in Netflix’s Outlaw King are in for a treat. And Pugh herself is in for a lengthy, head-turning career.
You don’t need to be a fan of wrestling to enjoy and appreciate Fighting with My Family, any more than you need to like boxing to get Rocky or know what a rebound is to love Hoosiers. It’s a universal story, and Merchant brings it like a double suplex off the top rope. So to speak.