CAN YOU SMELL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKING?!!! Doesn’t matter if the answer is no. Fighting with My Family— a recent Sundance Film Festival gem that starts with a vintage WWE clip of Dwayne Johnson bellowing his catchphrase circa 2000 — is as much about wrestling as Bird Box is about birds. Both an offbeat comedy and classically rousing underdog tale of an aspiring ring champion, this indie film’s heart somehow exceeds the size of Johnson’s bulging biceps.
It shouldn’t surprise you in the least to learn that this is based on a true story. The refreshing change in Fighting with My Family is that our fighting hero is a female. A British female. A working-class British female. A working-class British female with goth-like looks who has the strength of a body-builder. Crazy thing is, Saraya-Jade Bevis (Florence Pugh) was told she was going to live and breathe the sport. Her fanatical parents (Nick Frost, Lena Headey) run a local wrestling association. Her brothers wrestle and loved to watch it on TV. So even though Suraya would have preferred watching Charmed, she was indoctrinated into the family business at a young age.
But the least invested member of the Bevis turns out to be the star. At age 18, Saraya — now re-branded as “Paige” after the Rose McGowan character in Charmed, obvi — is the only person in her local audition group to go to Orlando to train and try out for a spot on the WWE roster. She even beats out her brother, Zack (Jack Lowden), who desperately seeks out a gig on the WWE circuit as his Plan A, B and C. With mixed feelings about leaving behind her supportive sibling, Paige uproots to the palm trees.
The adjustment in Orlando is a difficult one. Paige’s style doesn’t mix well with her tan, bottle-blonde, long-legged peers. And those are just the other females. Nothing she says or does impresses her trainer-coach (Vince Vaughn), a man who will cut you to pieces with his droll insults before he cuts you from the tour itself. (Though I didn’t buy Vaughn as a sadsack former journeyman on the WWE circuit, he’s in his 2005-era wheelhouse dishing out the verbal slams.) Lonely and homesick and unable to summon her inner-and-outer-strength, Paige deeply contemplates quitting so she can go back to her family. But if you think failure is an option, then you’ve never seen a sports movie.
Writer-director Stephen Merchant, who created the original The Office with Ricky Gervais, adheres rather closely to the rise-against-the-obstacles genre playbook. As low as Paige gets emotionally, we know that her pain is just a temporary setback until the pride kicks in. And pride, of course, is forever. And while I admit I’m unfamiliar with Paige’s history, surely her journey from England to the top was not as tidy as it’s presented here. In Fighting with My Family, she’s literally an overnight sensation!
We must also address the matter of the WWE — i.e., World Wrestling Entertainment. Early on, Headey tersely notes that the wrestling matches are fixed but not fake. We see the proof in the rigorous training montages in which the athletes are asked to do everything short of climb the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. But then Merchant conveniently forgets this fact during the Paige’s climactic 2014 battle with AJ Lee for the Divas Champion title on WWE Raw that we’re asked to consider as legit.
What prevents Fighting with My Family from being one big overblown cliché are the fantastically grounded performances. Pugh (The Outlaw King, Lady Macbeth) is a spitfire in a breakout role, to the point where I’m convinced she could take down Johnson himself under the right circumstances. Johnson, who cameos as himself and co-produced, shakes things up each time he walks into a scene. I was most impressed by Lowden (Dunkirk), who refuses to quietly go from disappointed also-ran into big-brother cheerleader.
And darn if Paige’s triumph isn’t authentically effective. So what that the matches are staged and the wrestlers play to the crowd with more fierceness than they play to each other. A true outsider and self-described “freak” that worked hard to earn her way into the bit ring is worth rooting for.
Fighting with My Family opens in theaters on Friday, February 15.