Sundance Review: Stephen Merchant doesn’t botch ‘Fighting With My Family’

This wrestling biopic is smartly written and solidly made

Fighting With My Family

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is out in Utah all week long covering the 2019 Sundance Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

It is an odd thing to consider that a comic genius like Stephen Merchant — best known for his work with Ricky Gervais co-creating shows like The Office, Extras, Life’s Too Short, and also for his acting work in films like Logan and video games like Portal 2 — probably received studio notes from Vince McMahon, but hey, them’s the breaks, I guess. His latest film, Fighting With My Family, a true tale of wrestling rags-to-riches adapted from a 2012 documentary about a family of English wrestlers whose daughter, Paige, found success in the WWE, is a solid little flick about hopes and dreams and the leap of faith (off of the top rope, of course) it takes to achieve them.

As Merchant pointed out during his introduction of the film at its Sundance premiere, we have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to thank for this bizarre meeting of the minds, given that this film probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the two of them working on Tooth Fairy together nearly a decade ago, and so I guess we should all be happy that movie came out in retrospect now.

The titular family in Fighting With My Family are the Bevis clan, a group of rough-and-tumble wrestlers from Norwich, England. There’s Patrick (Nick Frost), also known as Rowdy Ricky Knight, the patriarch of the clan, who turned away from a life of crime to start his own wrestling promotion alongside his wife Julia (Lena Headey), who wrestles under the ring name “Sweet Saraya.” Their eldest son, a popular wrestler in his own right, is in prison, and their two other kids — Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden) and Saraya (Florence Pugh), known to her friends and family as “Raya” so that they can forget, for just a moment, that her mother named her daughter after the name she wrestled under — regularly wrestle in their parents’ promotion as well. It’s been both Raya and Zak’s dream to audition for the WWE, who they see as the top of the pops, ever since they watched The Rock and Stone Cold and Mick Foley back on Raw and Smackdown back when they were children. Both are talented, and have lived their lives in service of that childhood ambition, though it seems to both that Zak is fated to be the chosen child.

Its this first third of the film that Merchant’s talents really shine through: He’s able to manage a large family ensemble smartly, and gives each and every performer a chance to shine through, including Lowden, who is such a goofy babyface here that it’s hard not to love him throughout his introduction. Pugh, who is required throughout to do a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting, is up to the task, as you might expect if you’re even vaguely familiar with her filmography, and she’s smartly used and tested throughout the runtime here. Frost and Headey are given some rough and brilliant moments of humor, and the film really excels when its just about the small-time tribulations of working-class athletes in a part of the world not really known for its wrestling prowess, and how that causes a community to unite behind them — such as when Zak takes on a blind protege and begins to teach him how to wrestle.

Anyways, when the call finally comes, on a night that originally seemed to be exciting for other reasons, given Zak was hosting a family dinner for both the Bevises and the parents of his soon-to-be-expecting girlfriend, and Raya and her brother are invited to audition for the WWE’s NXT talent development promotion when Smackdown comes to London later that week. The two are put through the grueling audition process by Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), the head of NXT, and at the end of it, both expect Zak to make his way alongside Hutch to Florida to train with the next generation of WWE superstars. Only, it’s Raya, now wrestling under the name “Paige” — which she not-so-subtly stole from Charmed re-runs — who is chosen by the coach to get on the plane with him and travel back to Florida. She feels that they’ve made a horrible mistake, still unable to really acknowledge that this might be her dream too, and begs Morgan to let her brother come with her, knowing this may very well drive Zak nuts — just as it did their eldest brother, who snapped after failing the WWE audition process and nearly beat a man to death in his disturbed state. Morgan says no, Raya leaves for Florida, and Zak falls into a deep depression.

Excepting the kind of hagiography that comes with the territory when a company is producing a film about themselves (there were plenty of moments when I wondered why Lowden’s character didn’t just, you know, go to Japan and wrestle in NJPW, but the WWE wants to portray themselves as the only game in town with good reason), one gets a solid look at what life is like for a modern-day aspiring professional wrestler, and this writer challenges anybody who previously thinks that wrestling is “fake” in all aspects to say so after watching this film. It takes an impossible amount of work to be anywhere near the top in an industry that is this physically taxing, where one minor mistake can potentially end a career, or, in the worst-case scenario, a life. But Merchant overestimates exactly how interested we are in watching normal people become WWE “superstars,” and forgets about the rest of his ensemble when Raya heads to Florida along side Vaughn’s wrestling drill sergeant/former jobber to study up.

Of course, it’s not all bad, and there are interesting conflicts in these situations, especially one that arises from the lack of experience of certain wrestlers — such as the models and dancers recruited by the WWE for what Headey’s character refers to as “tits and ass” — and a life-long worker like Raya, whose work in the indies, outside of this mainstream corporate culture, is somewhat of less of an asset than you might expect. After one of her fellow wrestlers botches a move during their training, Raya gives the girl a “receipt,” or a slap, trying to discourage her in the same way that her brother did back when they were working together, and the staff at the NXT training center comes down on her with fury. It all adds up to a bizarre kind of culture clash, as Raya attempts to please her bosses, whom she believes only want what the other girls have. This conflict, while interesting enough, isn’t as potent as what’s happening across the pond, where Zak is having a slight nervous breakdown over his failure to realize his dreams and his new responsibilities as a new husband and father. Unwittingly, Merchant spends so much time trying to find pathos in Raya’s initial struggles in Florida that the movie kind of grinds to a halt. The movie becomes humorless, Frost and Headey disappear, and Pugh and Lowden are forced to mope their way towards a resolution.

Happily, Merchant recovers quite a bit when documenting Raya’s return and earnest transformation into The Woman Who Would Be Paige, and the film, for how desperately free of fun it is in that second act, at least earns its few feminist bonafides. Pugh is able to demonstrate how her attitude has changed; from supporting her fellow female wrestlers to putting the work in to make herself better, and the film’s ultimate resolution is sweet, if not a bit silly, all things considered. The humor makes a welcome return in the third act, which brought the audience in the Ray back to life somewhat, plenty of it coming from the interactions of WWE brass — including The Rock — interacting with the rough Bevis clan over the phone in the lead-up to Paige’s debut on Monday Night Raw. The wrestling scenes are fun enough, especially when the lights get bright near the end, and the film, for the most part, earns its happy conclusion (though you might not want to look at Paige’s Wikipedia page if you want those happy vibes unspoiled by reality).

It’s interesting to see a unique comedy director like Merchant navigating both the rigors of unambiguous drama and the difficulties of inherent compromise with a corporate entity like the WWE, and, though the results aren’t completely successful, it is, for the most part, recognizably his film, and the fact that he was able to maintain some sort of identity in the face of these overwhelming odds is undeniably worthy of praise. Yet, at the same time, one can’t help but think that Fighting With My Family were straight-up fictionalized and not beholden to a wrestling company’s bottom line and PR standards, it might be a stronger film, one that might have allowed Merchant to fully do his particular thing instead of the compromise-heavy version that will play in theater screens nationwide later on in February. But it’s not a botch by any means, and there’s a lot of fun to be had within Fighting With My Family’s runtime for wrestling adherents and non-fans alike.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute.