I grew up watching the WWF, and all of the amazing ‘80s superstars it introduced. The WWE hit its peak in the late ‘90s when I was in high school, with Stone Cold, Degeneration-X, and – probably the most famous of them all – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson kicking butt and taking names. There have been a handful of movies about professional wrestling in that time, but none have tackled the subject quite like Fighting with My Family (2019). For one, it’s centered around a female protagonist – but it also crafts a very strong underdog story while emphasizing family values, believing in oneself, and finding one’s passion. This film worked for me on so many levels that it is currently my favorite film of 2019.
Fighting with my Family shows the triumphs and bumps in the life of a professional wrestler
Fighting with My Family is based on the true story of Saraya Knight (played by Florence Pugh), who was the daughter of UK-based professional wrestlers Julia Knight (Lena Headey) and Ricky Knight (Nick Frost). Saraya and her brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), are following in their parents’ footsteps, and trying to exceed them by making it as professional wrestlers at the highest level: the WWE. The duo is given a tryout, but the WWE scout, Hutch (Vince Vaughn), only wants Saraya. She’s sent to Florida to begin her journey, while Zak is left reeling crisis.
Steven Merchant is a director and actor who definitely gets comedy. He tends to get some very quirky character roles that are often the funniest part of whatever scene he is in. That’s not untrue for his small role in this film, but the overall humor in the movie works constantly. Furthermore, Nick Frost brings his comedic sensibilities, and Dwayne Johnson gets to flex his formidable comedic muscles. Headey and Frost have great chemistry as well, and some of the early laughs come from Headey as she tells her daughter that wrestling is like doing meth, heroin, and some third drug all at once. The retort by the young Saraya is “have you done that,” and Headey quickly says “not at the same time”. While the humor is strong and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments – a fact proved by the excellent audience I was with – this film is not merely just a comedy.
There are real stakes in this film, which that Pugh and Lowden deliver through excellent performances. Saraya, who is most known as the WWE wrestler Paige, is struggling to figure out exactly who she is trying to become a wrestler for. Zak, who always knew exactly what he was going to be, is now struggling to come to terms with the idea that his dream may not be his reality after all. The inner conflict each character is experiencing naturally comes between them, as well as their close-knit family. None of it feels melodramatic; it all feels real and important.
In fact, the characters all-around are extremely well developed…far past what one may expect. Hutch, for example, hits some of the stereotypical notes one expects for a mentor or sports trainer character – but Vaughn’s performance and the well-crafted screenplay make him so much more. While some of the outcomes are predictable for fans of films like this, Hutch is empathetic, and along with Vaughn’s comedic wit, very likable. He gets to give a really great monologue at one point in the film that outlines much of what both Zak and Saraya are going through, and why it takes something more to make it in the sports entertainment industry.
Another area where the characters get far more development than I initially expected is the other “Divas” – WWE’s name for their female talent – that Saraya finds herself initially in total contrast with. While Saraya grew up being trained to wrestler, the other Divas are former models and cheerleaders. They are tall, blonde, and tan while Saraya is shorter, with black hair and pale skin. The divide this creates between Saraya and the other girls further emphasizes her loneliness, as she’s away from her family and surrounded by completely new circumstances. She forms opinions that I believe many fans of WWE may share about the other Divas, and the film manages to remind us that everyone has a story that we won’t know if we don’t make any effort to know it. In other words, it shatters the simplicity of their characters. While there isn’t time to flesh out every single person we encounter, we are reminded that they are more than just one trait.
There is so much to love about this movie – and I, for one, plan to continue to do so. Fighting with My Family finally merges the struggles shown in Darren Aronofsky’s film The Wrestler (2008) to the fun of chasing dreams shown in Ready to Rumble (2000) with an air of Rocky (1976), as an underdog fights and claws their way to achieving respect from peers. Fighting with My Family earns the Must See rating.