Make no mistake: “Fighting with My Family” is a branding opportunity wrapped in the skins of an offbeat family comedy. There are no subtleties about this one. The WWE formed WWE Films in 2002 and has since been churning out films that feature and promote their own megastars. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in "The Scorpion King", John Cena in "The Marine", and Steve Austin in "The Condemned", to name a few.
If the titles weren’t a dead giveaway, the majority of films they’ve produced have been action-focused. Tight shots of bulging biceps and thin shirts capitalizing their wrestling physique are common denominators. Apart from a few curveballs (including, hilariously, 2014’s horror sleeper hit “Oculus”), WWE Films caters to their fans, giving them more of what they want: wrestlers doing whatever it is wrestlers do best, just outside of the ring.
It is with this preconceived notion you may find yourself hesitant to give “Fighting with My Family”, for lack of a better pun, a fighting chance. I understand; I was in that same skeptical boat. I have peripheral knowledge of the WWE and their productions. I’ve been to RAW live once, and I’ve watched a few episodes of “Total Divas”, a reality on E! that follows the lives of the established female wrestlers in the WWE.
One such diva featured on the show is Paige, a raven-haired angst-ridden tomboy from Norwich, England who has built her character in the ring around her real-life persona: a hard shell who can’t be cracked and who revels in the title of “misfit extraordinaire”. She’s loud and opinionated, and she’s a hard left turn from the other divas.
Paige aka Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) was born to Julia and Ricky Knight (Lena Headey and Nick Frost). Once homeless and thieving in order to survive, her parents attribute amateur wrestling to saving their lives. Named after her mother’s stage identity, Saraya goes by Britani when she’s flinging her body at the ropes or face planting on the floor with her brother “Zak Zodiak” (Jack Lowden), her mentor and greatest cheerleader. They train at the gym her parents own and run under a professional promotion called World Association of Wrestling.
When executives at NXT, the WWE’s developmental branch, see their tape, Saraya and Zak get a once in a lifetime opportunity to impress the American recruiter (Vince Vaughn). It is Saraya, not Zak, who has promise, and with a tearful goodbye, she moves to Florida, undergoing grueling training to prove to everyone she deserves a spot as a WWE’s headliner.
Based on Saraya's life story as well as the 2012 documentary that followed the clan, “Fighting with My Family” was written and directed by Stephen Merchant, an unconventional choice to tackle a WWE star’s origin story, but it works. It works quite a bit, actually. The Knights aren’t pretty or orthodox. They certainly aren’t the poster family for normalcy, and in their frenetic lifestyle lies what draws us to them.
You can expect a big cameo from The Rock who also serves as a producer of the film, and plenty of references to other wrestling legends. But you don’t have to be a WWE fan to find enjoyment here. Pugh as Paige is the perfect balance of believably tough and understatedly gentle. She flies through the ring with as much earnest authenticity as when she is goofing on the sidelines with her family of rebels.
Headey and Frost have a goofy, enigmatic chemistry that is sure to make you smile, but it is thanks to Merchant that the film achieves what it sets out to do. His script is fresh and funny, and the story moves. His characters, though based on real people, pop off the screen and take on a life of their own. They may just make a wrestling fan out of you by the end of it.