‘I’ ON CULTURE
This seems to be a month for being pleasantly surprised. I went to see Fighting With My Family mostly because it appeared to be the only candidate for the week, and I had a good time. It is a typical “underdog overcomes everything to become a champion” film, but it does it in a charming, fun way. Even I, the great cynic, found myself rooting for the young woman at the center of the film.
Saraya (Florence Pugh) is a member of a daffy wrestling family in England. Not London, but one of the smaller cities, Norwich. Dad Ricky (Nick Frost) is a huge bear of a man, an ex-con who has turned to wrestling, running a small-time group of kids who want to wrestle, one of them actually blind. Mama Julia (Lena Headey) is a loveable goof who also wrestles. They have three kids, one off in prison, their son Zak (Jack Lowden) and daughter Saraya, who fights under the name Britani. The family’s basic dream is to get their kids into the WWE, the super-star wrestling group.
The kids audition in front of Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), the top talent scout and trainer. Only Saraya is taken, and she is told to take a new name since they already have a Britani. She chooses Paige, after Rose McGowan’s character in her favorite show, Charmed. She comes to America to train, is wildly out of place, and decides to quit. Over Christmas, her brother, furious at not being chosen and having his dreams shattered, convinces her to go back. Then we get the typical “girl against the world” section where she fights for a place and suddenly gets her big chance. Surprising everyone (except the audience, who has seen this before) she winds up winning. What makes this more surprising is that it actually happened. And we get to root for her the whole way.
All through the film, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays himself, a former wrestling champion. The film starts with him on television for the family, he is shown being charming to the brother and sister when they come over to him on their way to the auditions, and then joining Paige to call her parents to let them know she is fighting. He is always affable and approachable, not surprising, since he is the producer of the film.
But the standout is Pugh. She inhabits the role of Paige. She did a great Lady MacBeth, a very different role, a couple of years ago. This young woman can act. She not only looked and acted like Paige, but actually fought in the ring like her. This is a classic performance, and she was backed up wonderfully by a great cast. Frost was strong as her dad, too large, too overbearing and a total huggy bear. Headey left her Queen Cersei evildoing behind as the sweet, befuddled and strong mom.
Lowden, however, was truly memorable in a tough performance. He had to be a real bad guy at times, while also being ready to help. In an interesting end-message, the real Zak trains young kids for the ring and actually has trained one blind professional wrestler — not as well-known as Paige’s champion exploits, but probably just as satisfying. Vaughn is also exceptional. Playing the tough trainer with a past is often a caricature, but he rose far above it. I could write that I hope to see him in more films, but I could say the same thing about every member of the cast.
What helps this film rise above the rest of the underdog-to-champion films is its sense of family, not only that of her biological one, but of the kids who work with them and the wrestlers themselves. Writer/director Stephen Merchant (who also had a bit part in the film) knows how to humanize everyone. The “bad girls” who plague Paige early on are actually nice and supportive once she gets to know them.
The film is like professional wrestling, “fixed but not phony.” We know Paige will eventually win and become a champion, but the ride is such fun. I heartily recommend this film.