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Review: Tag team of Merchant, Pugh make ‘Fighting with My Family’ a hit

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With writer-director Stephen Merchant’s wit and a standout performance from Florence Pugh, “Fighting with My Family” proves to be far more than a wrestling movie. (Photo courtesy of IMDb)

Can you smeeeeeeeeeeellllllll what The Rock is cooking? In “Fighting with My Family,” producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and writer-director Stephen Merchant deliver the first truly great movie of the year.

Who would have ever thought The Rock would be rolling out a critically acclaimed movie at Sundance Film Festival? A lot can change in 15 years…

While a film about an amateur female wrestler’s rise to WWE stardom may not sound like it’s up your alley, don’t be too quick to look over this one. With genuine laugh-out-loud moments and enough heart to fill The Rock’s massive chest, “Fighting with My Family” is perfect for die-hard wrestling fans and newbies alike.

Based on the life of Saraya-Jade Bevis, aka “Britani Knight,” aka “Paige” (wrestling names are confusing, y’all), this true story follows her ascension from low-budget gigs in Norwich, England all the way to WrestleMania – WWE’s biggest stage. For the purpose of simplicity during this review, I’m just going to call her Saraya.

The movie sets the stage as Saraya (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) settle a childhood argument by grappling and brawling – beginning their lifelong dream of becoming professional wrestlers. As the children of two locally-known semi-professional wrestlers, “Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost) and “Sweet Saraya Knight” (Lena Headey), the kids immediately begin training, traveling around the country to entertain crowds at abandoned warehouses, gymnasiums and festivals.

After receiving a phone call from a WWE talent scout named Hutch (Vince Vaughn), Saraya and Zak attend a tryout in London in hopes of making their dreams come true. In the end, only Saraya gets the invite to train with Hutch in Florida, leaving Zak jealous and distraught.

Saraya travels to America and begins training in the WWE’s NXT program, only to find out her dreams won’t come as easily as she once thought. She may have the wrestling background, but the other girls have the model/cheerleader look that the league wants. On top of that, Saraya becomes extremely homesick and she quickly realizes she might be in over her head.

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Florence Pugh as Saraya-Jade Bevis in “Fighting with My Family.” (Photo courtesy of IMDb)

Like most sports movies based on true stories, “Fighting with My Family” follows the fairly common rags to riches, nobody to superstar formula. But, what makes this film so much different, and saves it from falling into those tropes, is its main subject – Saraya.

It’s not every day we see a powerful female lead at the center of a sports movie. Unfortunately, those stories just aren’t told as often. But with Saraya and the brilliant on-screen representation by Pugh, it makes this somewhat typical story feel refreshing and new.

Part of that can also be credited to Merchant’s smart and hilarious writing. Famous for his work on both the British and American versions of “The Office,” it’s clear Merchant  knows his way around comedy, but his ability to perfectly balances humor with intimate looks at the characters is extremely impressive. In one particularly hilarious scene we see a true clash of worlds, as the Knight family hosts Zak’s girlfriend and her parents for dinner, but they are completely unfamiliar with the wrestling world. Merchant himself appears as the shocked father who’s learning about the new family he’ll be entering, and it makes for possibly the film’s funniest scene.

Despite my affinity for the living legend that is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, I must say, his role in this movie was pretty unnecessary. As the film’s producer, it seemed almost as if he was included as a character just to build marketing hype and deliver a few funny punchlines. His jokes are solid and he’s as charismatic as ever, but the role felt a bit self-gratifying. I mean, for a guy who has a cameo and just a handful of lines, should he really be the second biggest character on the poster?

Even if you’ve never been a fan of wrestling, “Fighting with My Family” has enough charm and humor to appeal to everyone. The action sequences are exciting and entertaining, but this film is far more than just choreographed stunts in the ring.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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