WRESTLING WITH HEART
Standing alongside the usual line-up of big budgeted blockbusters, run-of-the-mill horrors features, and the plethora of “page to screen” adaptations, the storytelling format of “sports themed” movies are an old staple of cinematic narratives to be told. While these genre of feature films have delved into various sports, including football, baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, MMA fighting, boxing, golf, and many others, the common, the underlining theme to many of these movies is found within the commonplace message of being a underdog; showcasing the challenge of overcoming obstacles (as both an individual and / or as team) as well to stand against the outside forces of society’s views. Now, MGM Pictures, WWE Studios, and director Stephen Merchant present the latest sports themed movies with the film Fighting with My Family. Does the feature win the match or is it “lights out” from the get-go?
Born into a family that eat, sleep and breathe wrestling, Saraya “Paige” Knight (Florence Pugh) learned at an early age when it took to perform moves and work the crowds in her hometown of Norwich, England. Guided by her parents / promoters, Patrick (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), Paige was mostly paired with her brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), with the kids fantasizing about one day making it big and joining the WWE. That dream comes true when WWE talent scout Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughan) decides to audition Paige and Zak, putting their talents to the test against other aspiring hopefuls. When only Paige makes the cut, she’s sent to Orlando to begin training for a spot on the WWE roster, joining flashy strangers who don’t know what to maker of her Englishness and goth appearance. Back home, Zak struggles with his new reality, dealing with the demands of a newborn and his dashed dreams, while Page has a rough time getting into the spirt of the training, worried about the mental health of her sibling as she closer to the big time.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I said above, sports themed movies are usually stereotypical, but usually fun and uplifting in some ways; a sort of “feel good” movie. As stated, the composition of the sports driven feature are usually accustomed to the “underdog” cliché of sorts, which (in my opinion) definitely works and, while that might make the narrative a bit repetitive, it’s still a wholesome endeavor. Think like the Rocky movies. There’s plenty of entries within that franchise and, while there are some surprises, most of the base narrative plot context is relatively the same. The same can be said about the actual sports that play out in these features, which are usually palpable in their own way (i.e. look inside their world of struggles and triumphs), but can be easily changed out from one to another. Still, I personally believe that these sport themed films fun, enjoyable, and usually test the endurance of person’s / team’s spirit and their goals and tribulations along the way.
This brings me back to talking about Fighting with My Family, a 2019 film endeavor that looks to examine the rise to stardom of WWE wrestler Paige. While I initially didn’t hear much about this movie, I do remember seeing the movie trailer for it a few times when I went to my local theater. The preview looked to be promising and definitely was intrigued by it the story it presented (judging from the trailer alone) as well as the liking of the film’s cast. Of course, while I knew several key figures in the WWE roster (throughout several decades), I personally didn’t know about Paige’s story. Thus, I was quite intrigued to see Fighting with My Family, but kept on pushing seeing the movie in theaters….in favor of more interesting / bigger release. So, I did miss seeing the movie during its theatrical run; deciding to buy the movie (blindingly) after hearing many good things about it. Thus, now I finally get the chance to give my thoughts on Fighting with My Family. What did I think of it? Well, surprisingly…. I liked it. While it might be a “paint-by-numbers”, Fighting with My Family provides to be a crowd-pleasing sport driven endeavor that has plenty of wit, heart, and family drama. It’s not exactly the most original story to tell, but the movie’s craftmanship succeeds more than similar projects.
Fighting with My Family is directed by Stephen Merchant, who has done a whole theatrical gambit of director, producer, writer, and actor for various projects such as Extras, Life’s Too Short, and The Office. Thus, given his well-rounded in both in-front and behind the camera, Merchant seems like a suitable director to helm such a project like this. In truth, despite his directorial work on television shows, Fighting with My Family marks Merchant’s second attempt in directing a feature film, with his first attempt being 2010’s Cemetery Junction. In this regard, Merchant definitely succeeds in his sophomore feature length endeavor, shaping Fighting with My Family to be an entertaining and wholesome project. What’s even more impressive is that Merchant pulls “double duty” by as both the movie’s director as well as writing the film’s script. While that may be problematic to some, Merchant does prove to have a steady grip on the directing and writing, which results in Fighting with My Family to have a solid foundation to stand out. To be sure that foundation stands upon a good source material, which derives from Saraya “Paige” Knight story on how she became a WWE wrestler. Naturally, Merchant’s script might have taken certain “liberties” with her story, but the core fundamentals of it all are still left intact; enough so that it keeps the film’s narrative to have enough entertainment and compelling piece for a wholesome endeavor.
Additionally, Merchant does make the film easy to digest in both Paige’s journey (i.e. the main narrative) and in the wrestling nuances for its viewers. So, even though a person might not know the “in and outs” of wrestling, it’s quite easy to follow. More than that, Fighting with My Family works because the film talks about the idea of family, with Merchant delving into plenty of personal family dynamic drama throughout the feature…. more so than the wrestling aspects. At the core of the feature’s narrative is the relationship between a brother and a sister (seeing with Paige and Zak) and the difference paths they must lead as well as (at the same time) provide room to examine the themes about friendship between women and the relationships between kids and their parents. It’s not exactly relatively breaking new ground, but Merchant does find a way to make all of this quite compelling; honing in on the core fundamentals of these components for a well-rounded (almost life-lessons about life) motion picture. Additionally, Merchant does keep a tight pace of the feature, which never does lag at any point. There are some parts that could’ve been improved upon (more on that below), but Merchant does keep the film moving at a pretty brisk pace; steadily clocking in at around 108 minutes (one hour and forty-eight minutes).
The technical and overall presentation for the film is pretty good. While it won’t probably get a looks for being nominated at any award show, the movie’s presentation is still spot on, especially in depicting the somewhat homely / destitute lifestyle that Paige’s working class comes from in Norwich, England to the more lavishing and contemporary of Orlando / the NXT training facilities. So, all the usual areas I mention (i.e. production designs, set decorations, costumes, and cinematography) are solid, which is quite impressive for a limited budget feature. Also, while the movie score, which is composed by Vik Sharma, is good and does provide the feature with an extra layer (melodically speaking), there’s also plenty of selected music songs peppered throughout that help pad out the film’s narrative and tone.
There’s a lot to like about the movie, but Fighting with My Family does have a few drawbacks in the movie, which hold it back slightly. The most notable one is in the film’ script, which (again) Merchant had a hand in creating. What’s presented is great, but it is, for lack of a better term, very “by the book”; projecting the same sport fueled underdog narrative yarn that’s usually accompanied in other similar sports themed movies (i.e. Remember the Titans, Glory Road, McFarland, USA, and so on, and so forth). Thus, despite the wrestling theme and following a Paige’s “road to the WWE” journey, the movie’s story is not exactly original and does follow a predictable narrative path from start to finish. Additionally, there are a few subplots that don’t exactly pan out to their fully extent, creating several fragmented narrative threads throughout the movie. Of course, the main story of Paige is presented to its fullest, but I kind of wished that the Merchant delved deeper in certain character moments. This also includes “undercooking” several key moments in the movie as well as some small, yet poignant moments as well. All in all, Fighting with My Family is a straightforward sports theme that, while still entertaining, is quite “by the book” in every word.
What does definitely help aid the movie in this criticism, is the feature’s cast of characters that really play up their characters to their fullest extent (be it heartfelt, comical, or just a variety of side characters). Leading the movie is the feature’s main character of Saraya (or rather Paige), who is played by actress Florence Pugh. Known for her roles in Outlaw King, The Little Drummer Girl, and Lady Macbeth, Pugh certainly demonstrates the fundamental core of who Paige, a young woman who is stuck between following her dreams and her family. Her acting talents is solid, which does lend credence in the feature as we follow her portrayal of Paige with great ease poise (through elation and heartbreak), which makes her character’s journey easy to root for her. As the story’s plot suggest, Fighting with My Family showcases the dual storylines of Paige and Zak, with actor Jack Lowden playing the second main lead of the feature in the character of Zak Knight. Known for his roles in Dunkirk, England is Mine, and Mary Queen of Scots, Lowden portrayals Zak’s insecurities beautifully, showcasing the downward spiral of his own life, while his sister ascends. It’s a classic dual narrative for a feature film, with Pugh and Lowden anchoring the feature (and within their respective characters) masterfully.
In more secondary roles, actor Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) and actress Lena Headey (Game of Thrones and 300) play the character of Paige and Zak’s wrestling enthusiasts / working-class parents…. Patrick “Rowdy Rick” Knight and Julia “Sweet Saraya” Knight respectfully. Together, both Frost and Heady know how to make their characters both outlandish (i.e. larger-than-life) persona fun and amusing as well as grounded and real at the same time, which does make Patrick and Julia memorable right from the get-go. Behind them, actor Vince Vaughn (Couples Retreat and Hacksaw Ridge) plays it cool and concise as the more straight-laced Hutch, a recruiter coach for NXT / WWE. Sure, it’s not his most wildest performance he’s done, but Vaughn surely makes the character his own; adding the occasionally “Vaughn” comedic bravado here and there as well as “grounding” Hutch in realism.
As for “The Rock” himself, Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs & Shaw and Moana) isn’t quite as heavily in the movie as a viewer might expect; boiling down to a handful of scenes in the feature’s final product. Still, while he made not take centerstage in Fighting with My Family, Johnson certainly does make his presences known within the scenes he’s in, showcasing the “larger than life” charisma persona he’s known for (both in wrestling days and in his recent turn at being at lead actor in Hollywood), which his involvement in the feature, amusing and welcomed addition to the film. Plus, it’s fun to see The Rock playing himself (or rather his past self from a few years back) and rifting on some of his real-world personality.
Rounding out the cast is actor James Burrows (Coronation Street and Love, Lies, and Records) as Paige and Zak’s step-brother Roy Knight, actress Hannah Rae (Broadchurch and City of Tiny Lights) as Zak’s girlfriend Courtney, actress Kim Matula (The Bold and the Beautiful and LA to Vegas) as Jeri-Lynn, actress Aqueela Zoll (Rush: Inspired by Battlefield and Bad Timing) as Kristen, actress Ellie Gonsalves (Zebra) as Madison, and actress Julia Davis (Nighty-Night and Love Actually) and Stephen Merchant (pulling another duty on the film) as Courtney’s parents….Daphne and Hugh. Most of these are relegated to small supporting roles in the movie, but each one does a good job. Lastly, because the movie is produced by the WWE, be on the lookout for several big-name wrestlers from the franchise that make small cameo-like appearance in the film. Won’t say who they are, but even I recognized them.
A story of dreams, hopes, wrestling and (of course) family collide together for a front row matchup sporting event in the movie Fighting with My Family. Director Stephan Merchant latest film sees the classic tale of a dysfunctional family and love of sports (wrestling) and molds into something pretty poignant and meaningful; following the two different lives of siblings Paige and Zak of life-altering decisions and how they face challenges ahead of them. While the films is pretty much a by-the-numbers sports underdog story (the standard trials and tribulations) as well as feeling a bit undercooked in a few storytelling elements, the movie does find its footing within its sincerity and empathetic ways of presenting its narrative, a well-earned cinematic journey, and a solid performances from all the cast members involved (both major and minor). Personally, I really liked this movie and I was quite pleased with the movie’s end result. Like I said, the story’s premise is a bit conventional for the sports genre, but it ultimately plays out better than most. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is definite “highly recommended” as it’s 2019’s “feel good” underdog film that’s easy to digest and to feel entertained by the time reaches its conclusion, especially those who enjoy the WWE. In the end, while the cinematic endeavors of sports related underdog tales will continue to be made, Fighting with My Family does certainly stand out above the rest; showcasing fun and enjoyable presentation that defines the meaning of “wrestling with heart”, while facing hardships obstacles that life throws at you to achieve your dreams.
4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: February 14th, 2019
Reviewed On: September 18th, 2019
Fighting with My Family is 108 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content