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What's the big deal?
Fighting With My Family is a sports-based biopic film released in 2019 and was both written and directed by Stephen Merchant. Based loosely on the TV documentary of the same name by Max Fisher, the film depicts the unconventional lives of the Bevis family in Norwich who run their own professional wrestling promotion and the efforts of siblings Saraya and Zak to compete in the lucrative WWE. The film stars Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn and Dwayne Johnson who reprises his wrestling persona The Rock as well as co-produce the film. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was released to a warm reception from critics and it would go on to earn $39.1 million worldwide.
What's it about?
Watching their favourite wrestler The Rock secure another WWE title on TV, siblings Saraya and Zak end up arguing about what to watch. Their parents, Patrick and Julia, run their own wrestling promotion based in Norwich in the UK where they go by the names "Rowdy Ricky Knight" and "Sweet Saraya Knight" respectively. After a scheduled wrestler fails to attend the show, Patrick asks Saraya if she will appear at the show instead. Aged just 13 and aware of the risks of the sport, Saraya is initially reluctant but agrees. To her surprise, she wins and ends up developing a renewed interest in the family business.
Fast forward a few years and the now 18-year old Saraya - going by the name of "Britani Knight" - and her brother "Zak Zodiac" have accumulated a number of years experience but are blown away to be invited to a try-out run by WWE who are holding a show in London. Under the watchful gaze of WWE trainer Hutch Morgan, both of them impress but only Saraya is offered a place. While Saraya travels to Florida to begin training under her new name "Paige", Zak returns to Norwich and is forced to face some uncomfortable home truths.
Saraya "Paige" Knight
Julia "Sweet Saraya" Knight
Patrick "Rowdy Ricky" Knight
Zak "Zodiac" Knight
Release Date (UK)
27th February, 2019
Biography, Comedy, Drama, Sports
What's to like?
As something of a casual fan of the graps, I already knew a little about Paige's life and her subsequent legacy after she ultimately retired through injury in 2018. Broadly speaking, the film is pretty close to the truth although there are some embellishments which is to be expected. Pugh, herself a rising star on screen, performs brilliantly as Paige and seems to be actually in the ring and doing the moves which frankly, I didn't expect. Frost is very funny as her father and together with Johnson (who seems excited to be slipping into his old wrestling persona once again), provide much of the comedy in the film. But there is also a serious side to the film, covering Zak's rejection and his feelings of despair watching his sister achieve what he never could. At times, it's actually quite emotive.
Fighting With My Family is a rarely seen blend of comedy, action and drama that surprises you with how engrossed you become in the story. Like the heels and babyfaces of wrestling (baddies and good guys), you find yourself rooting for these underdogs to make it although most viewers will already know how this story ends. Unlike The Wrestler, this is a film that depicts professional wrestling as a brightly-lit arena where dreams come true and only the best make it. Of course, you'd expect a WWE film to do that and that's part of the problem...
- Johnson, who was in the UK filming Fast & Furious 6, watched the 2012 documentary about the Bevis family on TV in his hotel room. Having previously worked with Merchant on Tooth Fairy, Johnson contacted him and asked him to develop the story and write a biopic.
- Among the real-life WWE personnel to appear in the film, wrestlers Big Show, Sheamus and The Miz all have cameos while Michael Cole, Jerry "The King" Lawler and John "Bradshaw" Layfield feature on commentary. Selina Vega also appears as AJ Lee while NXT UK star "Bomber" Dave Mastiff appears as another of the try-outs.
- Saraya Bevis claimed that her dad was disappointed when he discovered Nick Frost was going to play him. Firstly, he had no idea who Frost was and secondly, he'd hoped that Ray Winstone would play him. But after seeing Frost's performance, he changed his mind and even claimed that Frost stole the picture!
- During the wrestling scenes between Paige and AJ Lee, the crowd kept chanting "CM Punk"- the name of Lee's husband who previously left WWE on less-than-good terms. Amped on the crowd, Johnson called Punk and told him that 15'000 people were chanting his name at a WWE taping. Backstage, WWE CEO Vince McMahon and producer Paul "Triple H" Levesque were furious at Johnson as the WWE were in a lawsuit with Punk at the time.
What's not to like?
...because the film carries the heavy stench of WWE involvement. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise - the film is partly set within the WWE and is a biopic of one of their stars. But WWE are very careful about their public image and the film not only takes a few liberties with the truth but also sweeps much under the carpet. It makes little mention of Paige's time in NXT where she was the NXT women's champion and no mention of her six years touring the independent wrestling scene in Europe. Johnson also never met Paige or her brother backstage at their tryouts and - get this - Zak did in fact wrestle one match on TV for WWE in a 2011 episode of SmackDown. I also got the feeling that Vaughan's role, apparently based on real-life trainer Bill DeMott, should have been much nastier if this film was attempting to be a real true story. But again, WWE's PR department stuck its nose in and it just ruins the film's ability to sweep up in its inspiring tale.
I also wanted to see more of Zak's downfall back in Norwich (which is about twenty miles away from where I live and is a great place to visit) because I already knew what happened to Paige. But apart from trying to blank out the impression of Paige that often appears on my favourite YouTube channel Cultaholic, the film works really hard to make you care about these characters and by and large, you do. It just needed a little less glossing over the darker sides of the story and the removal of a character's nickname which, given Paige's own history, I couldn't believe they had kept in.
Should I watch it?
It's a good film for the whole family to enjoy, especially if anyone is interested in wrestling but it doesn't quite shake off the vibe of being a simple WWE propaganda exercise. The return of the Rock will get fans of the Attitude Era popping but Fighting With My Family is a winning combination of comedy, drama and body-slams. It's a more entertaining picture than The Wrestler which is a bit too grim for its own good at times but this certainly feels like the WWE antidote, a cheery and inspiring film about one of its most popular stars.
Great For: wrestling fans, anyone unfamiliar with Paige, anyone living in Norfolk fed up of being represented by Alan Partridge
Not So Great For: smarks, cynics, AEW
What else should I watch?
WWE have certainly had a chequered success rate when it comes to their big-screen outings. In addition to straight-to-DVD animation crossovers with the likes of Scooby Doo and The Jetsons (I'm not kidding) as well as a franchise killing sequel to Surf's Up, they either produce traditional action films like The Marine or 12 Rounds featuring WWE stars in the lead roles (both of which starred the now mainstream star, John Cena), horror films featuring their wrestlers or sequels nobody wanted like Jingle All The Way 2 or... erm, The Marine 6: Close Quarters. The only real stand-out I can see is the 2004 remake of Walking Tall which helped Johnson launch his own movie career. And 2004 was a long time ago.
As for fictional films about professional wrestling, I'm afraid the locker room is about as deep as Stephanie McMahon's smile. Garbage like No Holds Barred and Ready To Rumble have really stained the idea of pro-wrestling movies for a long time until Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler scooped up awards like I would be in the ring with the Big Show. Having said that, the forthcoming The Peanut Butter Falcon is an intriguing indie film featuring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Bruce Dern with cameos from Mick Foley and Jake "The Snake" Roberts. Due for release in October 2019 so keep your fingers crossed it doesn't suck.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox
Michael115 on August 01, 2019:
I used to be a big fan of wrestling. A movie about a female wrestler is an interesting concept and I might check it out some time to see if it's an okay watch. Great review!