Based on the real-life tale of Saraya-Jade Bevis (WWE’s Paige), FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is an amiable enough comedy. It never quite settles into a real comedic stride, but there are enough touching themes about the impact of thwarted dreams, having conviction in your own sense of self, and sparks of writer-director Stephen Merchant’s wit to endear the audience to the story.
Florence Pugh plays Saraya, who has grown up wrestling with her family, chiefly her brother Zak ‘Zodiac’ (Jack Lowden), and touring around small venues in England under the business supervision of their mother (Lena Headey) and father (Nick Frost). They train local kids, taking the kids away from more unsavoury or lonely ways of passing time, and dream of the WWE. Invited to try out when the global juggernaut comes to London, Saraya finds herself with the opportunity of a lifetime, whilst Zak must deal with the fallout of coming up short.
Merchant’s script moves along well, contains enough chuckles, and lacks some of the more cynical barbs that can crop up in his work alongside Ricky Gervais. In truth, though, it feels like it should be funnier, especially given the topic at hand – the pageantry of American professional wrestling – is ripe for a British style of mordant mockery.
However, it does allow some more interesting aspects to come through. How Zak deals with being rejected is a great thread woven through the film, and allows Florence Pugh – in an excellent performance – to bounce off of Jack Lowden as the film enters its final plot movements. Many people are sold the idea of near-instant fame, with tryouts and auditions for all manner of entertainment. If some dream and strive for this all their lives – at the expense of other things – then what is the cost when they are not realised? Zak’s arc in the movie is compelling for focusing on not just a quest for fame, but how to channel your energies for good once that fades. Saraya’s triumphant journey is the core of the film, of course, and woven through that are elements of not judging those we don’t perhaps really know. It starts with her being judged as a ‘weirdo’, and whilst that thread continues it is ironically reflected back upon her later in the film. The story, therefore, embraces difference but not at the expense of condescending those perceived to be conformist.
FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY manages to do this whilst remaining fairly sugar-free. Merchant’s directorial style could be described as pedestrian if you were in a churlish mood, but I prefer to think of it as not getting in the way of his own script or the very empathetic performances of his lead actors. The film needs Merchant’s style of humour, because in different hands this story would be saccharine and cloying. Instead, it pokes fun affectionately whilst delivering some messages that are optimistic without being too simplistic.