While Hollywood is full of underdog-athletes tales, it has very few films that center on women in sports and even fewer about women in male-dominated sports. Entering the ring is “Fighting With My Family,” delivering a funny, heartfelt, and refreshing origin story inspired by the real life career and family of the WWE’s Paige (real name: Saraya-Jade Bevis).
The film opens on two young siblings intensely watching WWE wrestling, featuring The Rock, on TV. Raya (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”) flips the channel to watch “Charmed,” which prompts her brother Zac (Jack Lowden, “Mary Queen of Scots”) to pull a wrestling move on her, and he begins to teach her how to wrestle like their WWE idols do on TV. Raya and Zac grow up living and breathing wrestling in Norwich, England, and they dream of one day being on the main roster of wrestlers for the WWE.
Years later, the siblings get the call to audition for a spot on the WWE’s NXT division, but only Raya — now wrestling under her stage name — is picked to move on. Her success sends Zac into a downward spiral, leaving her to feel more alone than ever before as she struggles to figure out who she is thousands of miles from home.
The strength of writer-director Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the original “The Office”) lies in his ability to tap into a character’s vulnerability without undercutting what makes that character fun to watch. In “Fighting With My Family,” he brings to life both Paige’s outward image of strength and her deep connection to her roots — particularly her ability to see the strength within her brother, even though it takes her longer to fully appreciate her own.
Pugh is a natural as teenage Raya/Paige, with great dry comedic chops as well as the ability to portray a young woman who is physically strong but so emotionally guarded that she almost forgets what makes her unique. “Fighting” wouldn’t be as heartfelt as it is without Pugh, particularly her chemistry with her co-stars Lowden, Lena Headey and Nick Frost. The four make a believable, perfectly matched family unit.
The film is also smart about Paige’s relationship to her trainer, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn): The tough mentor can easily play like a stale cliché, and though Vaughn’s role feels simply like a more professional version of his “Old School” character, it works.
For wrestling fans, there’s a parade of cameos and vintage WWE footage of stars, ranging from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who executive-produces and plays himself) to Sheamus to various legendary “Divas.” I’m no expert, but the actors come across as real wrestlers, which is a testament to the stunt coordinators and stunt performers.
It’s all too rare to see a film where a young woman is given agency to explore who she is in contrast to who she is expected to be without adding a romance or a big makeover scene. (To be fair, this is a movie about pro wrestling, so there’s a small makeover; it’s done well and fits the story). Though the film itself takes liberties with Paige’s origin story, it never strays too far from being a story about a young woman learning to embrace her destiny.
Yes, it’s a wrestling movie, but “Fighting With My Family” is also a delightful entry into a genre that has too few inspiring stories for young girls. It’s a warm-hearted underdog saga with a feminist undertone and a celebration of everyone’s inner misfit.