Associating oneself as a fan of professional wrestling used to be something that would get you ridiculed in the school yard. You would hide your adoration of a “sport” with larger-than-life characters who would style and profile, deliver a can of whoop ass, or ask if you could smell what he was cooking. But then in the mid-to-late 1990s wrestling became more socially accepted with a fanbase that today includes celebrities Jon Stewart, Snoop Dogg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shaquille O’Neal, Stephen Amell, Melissa Joan Hart, Sofia Vagara, and Joe Manganiello among others.
By now everyone knows Dwayne Johnson. He used wrestling (or “Sports Entertainment” as World Wrestling Entertainment labels it) as a platform to create his own career outside of the ring. Johnson is one of the few exceptions. For many wrestlers, or those who aspire to become wrestlers, WWE is the goal. Making it to this stage is like a high school football player becoming an NFL pro. The chance of success is miniscule but for those select few it can be a dream, or a nightmare.
Fighting with My Family from Stephen Merchant focuses on the dream and the struggles to reach the grand stage of the WWE. Having co-created the shows Hello Ladies and The Office, Merchant seems an unlikely fit to both write and direct, but those suspicions quickly evaporate when we meet the Knight family. When siblings Saraya and her older brother Zak are tussling in the living room as wrestling plays on television, their parents come in not to break up the fracas but to show how to properly apply a chokehold. For the Knights wrestling is in their blood (“like Hepatitis A, B, and C,” Zak quips). Father Ricky (Nick Frost) is a former-convict n’er-do-well who fell madly in love with Julia Bevis (Lena Heady). Their mutual love of wrestling blossomed into a family business with the creation of the World Association of Wrestling (WAW) in the working-class English town of Norwich.
The mom-and-pop wrestling promotion is a few steps above backyard wrestling but a far cry from the thousands that show up to see WWE live. WAW is lucky if they get 100 fans in attendance at their shows. Still Saraya (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) grow up to be to stars of the promotion, having put in the time to hone their craft. It’s just a matter of time before they get the call from WWE to audition.
Country legends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings whittled a tune about mothers not letting their babies grow up to be cowboys. Wrestling is different. Wrestling families have spawned legacies that have defined generations. This includes Johnson, whose father and grandfather were professional wrestlers. With that family history it’s easy to see why Johnson was attracted to bringing the story of the Knights to screen.
When Saraya gets a shot with the WWE and Zak does not, their paths separate. Zak’s despair is more abrupt, like taking an Irish whip into a wrestling turnbuckle and careening backwards onto the mat. Saraya suffers as well, but hers is a festering misery. Leaving overcast England for sunny Florida – her dark-haired and pale-white skin seemingly out of a place in the land of blondes and tan lines – Saraya changes her looks and name (first to Britani and then Paige) to be like the other fitness models and former cheerleaders auditioning to become one of WWE’s “divas.”
Fighting with My Family is an underdog story about working-class dreamers, something that many of us can relate. Success in sports requires diligent training and physicality, which is illustrated wondrously in training sequences that mimic what aspirant wrestling superstars go through. Viewers unfamiliar with the process may gain a measure of respect for something considered fake.
The problem is that most of the story feels like soft-serve ice cream for wrestling fans. They are the target viewership, and with WWE as one of the producers (under its WWE Studios banner) you were only going to get to venture so far behind the curtain. The true honesty about superstardom is not your heart or desire or love of wrestling. The “It” factor and marketability have the most prevailing influence. Fighting for My Family mentions this briefly, instead favoring what has worked time and time again: a scrappy underdog tale that finishes, just like a wrestling match, with a predicted ending.
Rated PG-13, 108 minutes. Director: Stephen Merchant Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!