Fighting with My Family” doesn’t redefine the sports biopic genre, which in a way is too bad because professional wrestling is such an unusual thing, sitting on the border between athletics and entertainment. It might be fascinating to dig further into the mechanisms of how participants – and ultimately, champions — are chosen and how their narratives are written. As it stands, “Fighting” is a standard biopic in structure, but the story of Paige is so genuinely inspiring, and actress Florence Pugh (“The Little Drummer Girl”) is such a natural star, that the film is totally engaging.
Knowing next to nothing about World Wrestling Entertainment and Paige herself, who wrestled from 2005-18 (and held the Divas belt from 2014-15), I found the story of her career path to be fascinating. Because pro wrestling is entertainment, as opposed to a genuine competition, it’s easy to think of wrestlers as actors, but “Fighting” actually emphasizes the athletic side of things. Arguably, it’s only telling us half the story, and because the film is produced in part by WWE Studios, there’s a sense that a magician is sharing a few basic secrets but not the whole show.
Paige’s real name Saraya, but she names her ring persona after her favorite “Charmed” character, further impressing a viewer with her youth (even now, the real Saraya is only 26). She hails from a poor family of wrestlers in Norwich, England, and her tight relationship with her older brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), is at “Fighting’s” heart. Wrestling (by the way, we’re talking about pro-style wrestling here, not competitive wrestling like you see at the high school and college levels) is unquestionably all Zak knows and loves. Paige loves her brother, but it’s less clear if she loves wrestling.
The Knights are a loving family, but undeniably a weird one. We’re told that father Ricky (Nick Frost) and mother Julia (Lena Heady) are alive and out of prison because they turned to wrestling instead of crime and suicide, respectively. They don’t exactly have the steadiest of incomes: They run a local pro wrestling circuit, where Zak and Saraya (going by Britani at the time) are the stars.
Written and directed by Stephen Merchant, who also plays a small role, “Fighting” doesn’t feature as much comedy as I expected (most of the best jokes are in the trailer), but I got caught up in the family’s story and didn’t mind the sparseness of the laughs. Although never a dark film (we never see the parents’ grim pasts portrayed), the weight on Paige’s shoulders is palpable because we know superstardom for her will be life-changing for this entire barely-working-class family.
There’s not much time for Paige or us to think about whether she really loves wrestling or if it’s merely the only thing she knows. She’s chosen for the WWE’s feeder circuit, NXT, by talent scout and trainer Hutch (Vince Vaughn), but Zak is passed over. This creates a fascinating dichotomy where we follow one sibling on a path to superstardom while the other’s dreams have been crushed and he has to “merely” be a husband, father and coach to at-risk local kids.
Rather than delivering a quick montage, a good chunk of the film chronicles Paige’s training, and it gives us a great sense of how physically and mentally hard it is. She’s never had to do anything like this without her big brother by her side, and she doesn’t know how to make new friends. Her Goth persona probably doesn’t help on this count.
Briefly, “Fighting” gets into a fascinating issue: Paige comes from a pro-style wrestling background, which is actually very unusual in pro wrestling, especially for women. The other women in NXT come from more traditional backgrounds: cheerleading and modeling. So Paige is in the awkward position of practicing against non-wrestlers, which is much more difficult than going against fellow wrestlers. After all, the goal is not to win a fight, but to put on a convincing performance without seriously hurting your opponent.
The film skirts by this conundrum, though, as it builds toward a conclusion that’s like something out of any ole sports biopic — Paige’s WWE Raw debut against the reigning champion. Will she win, or will she blow it? This is a weird narrative choice because, again, this isn’t really a fight. The WWE’s scripters, not Paige or her opponent, determine who will win and the wrestling moves that lead up to the win. But we’re never shown that behind-the-scenes stuff.
Most biopics combine real people into composite characters and tighten the timeline, but with “Fighting” I’m particularly aware of this. There’s a beefier, warts-and-all WWE movie to be made someday, and it won’t come from WWE Studios. But Pugh has a spark like what NXT’s talent scouts saw in Paige. “Fighting” plays fast and loose with reality, just like pro wrestling does, but it gets away with it. In the end, you can’t argue with that special star quality, whether it’s from a pro wrestler or an actress.