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Non-Review Review: Fighting With My Family

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

There is very little by way of surprises in Fighting With My Family.

The film is effectively a straight-down-the-middle combination of the sporting-underdog narrative with the working-class-kid-makes-good narrative, this time filtered through the prism of a young wrestler from Norwich who finds herself cast into the spotlight when she is recruited by the World Wrestling Federation. Along the way, there are all manner of trials and tribulations, many of them expected in a story like this; there is tension with those who weren’t special enough to be elevated, self-doubt about her worthiness for this big break, an acknowledgement that she needs to change herself before she can expect the world to change to meet her. This is all stock material, and it would be easy enough to map out even without a true story providing a blueprint.

However, Fighting With My Family is elevated by two key factors. The first is a sharp script from Stephen Merchant. The co-creator of The Office seems an incongruous choice for a film like this, and it’s remarkable how light his touch is. Fighting With My Family is funny, but not in the arch manner suggested by so many of Merchant’s other projects. The film is self-aware, but enough to coax over a cynical audience rather than going so far as to deconstruct itself. Fighting With My Family acknowledges its own tropes and narrative conventions, but doesn’t pick them apart. It understands that they are familiar and well-worn, but also appreciates that they exist for a reason in stories like this. It is a very delicate balance, and Merchant’s script strikes it well. It makes it look easy.

The other advantage that Fighting With My Family has is the central cast. Florence Pugh is a young actor to watch, quickly establishing herself as a tremendous creative talent through work in films like Lady Macbeth and Outlaw King, and she brings an endearing vulnerability and strength to the leading role. She is also fantastically supported by the actors around her, in particular Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her wrestling parents. Like any good wrestler, Fighting With My Family knows and hits all its marks with a little broad crowd-pleasing emotion thrown in. It’s as carefully fixed (but never faked!) as any wrestling match, but elevated by a smart and savvy script and a charming cast.

To be fair, there is a disconcerting feeling watching Fighting With My Family that this effectively amounts to propaganda produced by the World Wrestling Federation, an elaborate recruitment video with slick production values and a lot of creative talent. The company’s branding is absolutely everywhere, from the logo before the credits to the production design in the film itself. Former superstar Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is treated as a divine figurehead, who wanders through the film to bestow his blessing like some spiritual guide. John Cena appears via archive footage. “Wrestlemania” is treated as a sacred event, and the lead character’s journey to it is treated as a pilgrimage. When the arena appears at the climax, it is a cathedral in neon.

This uncomfortable sense of product is compounded by a context that the movie skillfully avoids. The production lasted so long that during filming the real-life wrestler whose story inspired the film was forced to retire due to injuries sustained while wrestling. Indeed, Paige’s career-ending injury came immediately on returning from a recovery period for another such injury. (This arrived on top of a host of other scandals and tragedies involving the breakout wrestler.) Fighting With My Family pointedly avoids any of this context in terms of telling a story about a young British girl who journeys to Florida to become a wrestler. While those omissions are understandable in the context of a film about the WWE by the WWE, they do provide an uncomfortable context.

Perhaps wisely, Merchant’s script hews very close to formula. Wrestling With My Family tells a familiar story in a relatively familiar way, adhering to the narrative template perhaps most effectively codified by Rocky that presents sport as a means of escape for young people from a working class background. Saraya Bevis comes from a wrestling family in Norwich, a troupe of wrestlers who are lucky to play to a three-quarters audience at the local community centre on a weeknight. When Saraya is spotted by a talent scout and recruited for training as part of the “NXT” programme in Florida, she has to leave a familiar world behind and finds herself thrown into a world that is radically different from the one that she thought she knew.

The various beats of Wrestling With My Family will be familiar to any audience member who has ever seen a film like this. Vince Vaughn plays Hutch Morgan, the gruff trainer with a tragic backstory and heart of gold. Jack Lowden plays “Zodiac Zac”, Saraya’s older brother who spirals into despair and disillusionment when he is told that he does not have the ineffable “it” that makes his sister a breakout star. When Saraya travels to Florida, she is immediately out of her element and struggles to fit in. She has moments of extreme self-doubt before she reaches an eventual epiphany. Narratively, almost everything within Wrestling With My Family moves like clockwork to the audible rhythm of countless films like this.

What elevates the film is Merchant’s understanding of the formula as a template for what he is doing, and his ability to elaborate around it. Most obviously, Fighting With My Family is a movie where the execution of each constituent element is much better than it needs to be; even if the beats are familiar, there is room for just enough improvisation and elaboration within those beats to allow Merchant to elevate the whole film from that basic template. This is perhaps most obvious in the clichéd story thread focusing on Zac’s crisis of identity, which includes the character mentoring at-risk kids. It’s an insanely cynical and manipulative set-up, but Merchant populates scenes with those kids with enough insane little details (an improvised long-range hammer) that they work.

Similarly, Merchant plays just enough with the familiar narrative elements to make them work. When Saraya arrives at training, she almost immediately finds herself at odds with the other women in the group; the standard sports movie dynamic. Saraya sees them – not inaccurately – as underprepared for the physical demands of wrestling; they do not come from the same fighting background as she does, and so are less competent than her, sometimes dangerously so. This is a familiar sports movie riff, the “us versus them”, the “outside versus insider.” The audience is meant to agree with and root for Saraya in this situation as somebody who is alienated by people who know more of the landscape than she does, playing to the narrative of the bullied eccentric.

However, Merchant develops that small detail in an interesting direction that subverts the expectation slightly while also adhering to the template. Saraya eventually earns the respect of her perceived adversaries, but in a way that is very clever and very canny. Merchant slyly eschews the “women at each others’ throats” narratives that films like this could play into, and instead suggests a greater deal of empathy and agency for characters who would normally exist on the fringe of a narrative like this. None of this is to suggest that Fighting With My Family is subversive or innovative, rather that it understands how a story like this needs to function and that it is shrewd enough to add a little nuance and flavour to the template when necessary.

At least part of this is down to Merchant’s skill as a comedian. Merchant’s work in television tends to be quite deconstructive and quite cynical; his most famous work remains the cornerstone of the entire “cringe comedy” genre. Fighting With My Family is a very funny film, something that is down to the cast as much as the script. However, Merchant makes a point to take his characters and their world serious, even while having fun with them. He understands that a little joke will often buy a lot of good will towards a bigger conceit. Asked for insight, the Rock tells Saraya, “Don’t try to be the next me, focus on being the first you.” Saraya laughs later, “That’s not advice. That’s a tweet.”

And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) acknowledging the corniness of the sentiment, the film sells it all the more effectively. After all, that sort of moral is something that it is very easy to be cynical about, particularly in a movie where the big scene in the film introducing the logistics WWE focuses on the idea that the perfect wrestler is an individual whose essence is so simple that it can be boiled down to “a six-inch action figure.” Those sorts of small deflating one-liners give the movie permission to be much more conventional and optimistic in its central theme. Sure, Saraya is correct that the Rock’s big advice is so trite that it might as well be branded on a bumper sticker, but joking about it allows the movie to commit to that earnest sentiment nonetheless.

Fighting With My Family also benefits greatly from the casting. Florence Pugh is a talent to watch, both for her work in independent cinema and her more mainstream efforts in movies like The Commuter or her appearance in King Lear with Anthony Hopkins. Pugh brings an incredible charisma to her protagonist, creating a character for whom the audience can root while also displaying deft comic timing. Nick Frost and Lena Headey are both very strong as the parents of this wrestling family, and Merchant uses both very wisely. While Frost can sell a dramatic scene, Merchant shrewdly leans on him for the film’s best jokes. While Headey is a strong comedian in her own right, the family’s strongest emotional scenes hinge on her.

Fighting With My Family is formulaic and conventional, but also a reminder that these two adjectives are not inherently prejudicial. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s well-told and well-performed. Appropriately enough for a wrestling movie, it knows how to sell a story, and it does this very well.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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