Fighting with My Family and all the images you see in this review are owned by United Artists Releasing
Directed by Stephen Merchant
There really should be more wrestling movies! Not movies starring wrestlers because… well after forty years we’ve managed about three good actors out of it, but movies ABOUT wrestling! Beyond the Mat? Good documentary! The Wrestler? Great movie! With those two examples, I rest my case! In the hopes of rectifying this situation, we’ve got WWE Studios along with Dwayne THE ROCK Johnson producing a biopic of sorts that tells the life story of one of its more recent superstars Saraya-Jade Bevis, known by her ring name Paige! Can the combined efforts of The WWE, Dwayneson The Rockson Johnson, and even the talents of Stephen Merchant who they roped in to write and direct this thing, bring us an entertaining and heartfelt movie about one of the world’s most popular sports, or are we in for another low rent outing from the studio known for mediocre horror movies, straight to DVD action flicks, and Hannah-Barbara crossovers? Let’s find out!!
Saraya (Florence Pugh) is your typical teenager girl in your typical wrestling family. Her parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey) have trained her to be an in-ring superstar and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) is training to be a superstar in his own right. The family owns a rather notable indie wrestling promotion in England known as the World Association of Wrestling, but even with their comparatively high profile as a company they’re still struggling in a country that doesn’t seem to care much for independent wrestling promotions. That’s why Saraya and Zak have been training in the hopes of getting the attention of the WWE which will not only propel them to the levels of fame and adulation that they’ve always wanted but will also give them a few bucks to send back home whenever WAW ticket sales fall short. Their chance does eventually come when the WWE and NXT (the training program for potential wrestlers) visit England to put on a show and field some new talent; all of whom will be tested by one of their most seasoned trainers (Vince Vaughn) to see if they have what it takes. The good news is that Saraya does indeed have what it takes! The bad news is that Zak does not and so she has to leave her family behind to pursue her dreams while has to stay behind and fail to live out his. Can Saraya survive the harsh challenges of the NXT boot camp and keep her head on straight despite being so far from home? What will Zak do now that he’s failed at the one thing he’s been training his whole life for? How intense do family dinners get when you know everyone there can power bomb you into the mashed potatoes?
This is a movie that SHOULD be excellent, and in a lot of ways it is! The problem is that it’s also one big WWE promotional piece which, at least for anyone who’s aware of them as a brand can see how calculated so much of this is which undercuts the dramatic story trying to be told. Let’s think about it for a moment; who is the target audience? They’re looking for someone who is into wrestling, who is also into family dramas, and knows enough about wrestling to LIKE the WWE but NOT know enough about wrestling to be oblivious to the ways it’s cynically framing the sport. I mean I’m sure that audience DOES exist and it may even catch a few of the more savvy wrestling fans who are willing to give WWE the benefit of the doubt on this movie, but ultimately it feels like a Frankenstein’s monster tearing itself apart between what it wants to be and its creators self-centered ambitions. Huh. I know they’ve done dead man gimmicks a few times, but has the WWE actually done a storyline about a monster built out of the parts of other wrestlers?
Most of this review is gonna be negative regarding the circumstances around the movie, so to start with I want to be clear that this is a PRETTY good movie that manages to excel even for someone like me who can see the machinery at work behind the scenes. The WWE is VERY protective of its branding (even against the people who you know, BUILT those brands) so whether or not Merchant and Johnson approached the WWE to make it or the other way around, there were gonna be some serious stipulations that the filmmakers had to work around. Yeah, those parts are UNAVOIDABLY prominent throughout the movie which we’ll get to soon enough, but even in this compromised state I think that Merchant and crew managed to make something with genuine heart and character to it. Heck, the scenes where we DON’T have the WWE poking its head in are pretty darn phenomenal with Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden showing themselves to be solid actors of both comedy and drama as well as Nick Frost and Lena Headey doing so much of the heavy lifting to make the other two look good. The real brilliance of this movie though is the dual storytelling where it’s less about Saraya-Jade’s story of becoming Paige as it is about how much of our lives are dictated by the dreams we aspire to. It was always Saraya-Jade’s dream to be the women’s champion at WWE, but when opportunity comes a knocking, she flinches and has to deal with the stuff she’s never had to really think about when becoming a WWE superstar was just a dream. Zack on the other hand has the opposite to deal with as he DIDN’T get his shot at the big time and has to find a way to live with that failure and change his priorities which is frankly what a lot of us in the real world have to deal with all the time. Not me though! I’m SURE if I work at this for another fifteen years I’ll get fourteen bucks a month in ad revenue! The point is that everything involving THE FAMILY in FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is darn well made and is the reason this movie works as well as it does; much like how the NXT has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the WWE whenever it starts to slump. SPEAKING OF WHICH!!
In short, the WWE branding is so invasive that it undercuts the drama because it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s marketing. WWE and NXT logos are everywhere, the superstars are plastered on Saraya-Jade’s walls, and she even has a Divas belt that she made herself; one that I’m sure if the WWE knew about they would have sent the twelve year old girl a cease and desist letter! MAN I’m just taking a lot of cheap shots at them, aren’t I? I’m usually not THIS annoyed by the WWE and their brand conscious shenanigans (why focus on that when you can focus on Vince’s terribleness, their deal with Saudi Arabia, and the fact that Randy Orton hasn’t been fired for ALLEGED sexual misconduct!?) but here it feels incredibly off putting when it’s getting in the way of a really solid movie. You’re telling me a woman who wrestled her ENTIRE life in the indie scene only cares about the one big game in the business!? That’s like a film buff that spent their entire lives going to festivals like Sundance, TIFF, and SXSW, but only thinks that Marvel films are worth discussing, and this isn’t a SNOBBERY thing; it’s about EXPOSURE! Someone who wrestles in the Indie scene is going to know about TNA, Ring of Honor, and PLENTY of other great wrestlers who didn’t get to the WWE! At the time this movie takes place, Brian Danielson and Allen Neal Jones were not on WWE but were still considered some of the best wrestlers out there, yet she still had posters of Stone Cold and The Rock on her wall despite the film taking place in 2010. Sure, MAYBE this is all part of the true story and she only ever cared about WWE superstars, but the fact that WWE is financially backing the film (plus the rather creepy way that superstar’s personal lives are ALSO subject to WWE creative control) made it hard for me to believe ANY of this.
Okay, let’s get off that for a moment here and try to focus on how the WWE segments work with the rest of the movie regardless of any cynical motives behind the scenes. So as I said, the crux of the story is the dual storylines between Saraya-Jade and her brother Zack where she’s at an NXT boot camp and he’s dealing with his life after the failure. I think the movie’s miscalculation with the WWE stuff is in how much stock they put into it as a brand, and again I’m not talking about them trying to sell you T-shirts after you leave the theater; I’m talking about the framing of the story itself and the message it’s trying to get across. The thing is, it doesn’t MATTER that it’s the WWE. The story could have worked just as well with a made up company because the focus is supposed to be on these two characters, yet WWE is still given a huge amount of spotlight here which gets in the way of the actual plot. The movie is based on a documentary from 2012, and I watched that after seeing the movie to see if some of my issues with the film were accurate reflections of the real life story, and sure enough there’s something that’s missing in this movie that’s present there. In a movie like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, there’s an acknowledgement of the darker side of the industry beyond just whether or not you can sustain your popularity, and that edge is missing here because WWE doesn’t want to remind people of that side of the story, so the movie is lacking that same kind of gut punch. Before I knew the true story, the thing I kept thinking of whenever we saw Zack dealing with life after the WWE tryout is that he STILL has plenty of opportunities and while this IS a tough blow, it’s not the end of the world. AJ Style and Bryan Danielson didn’t make it to the WWE until their thirties (okay, twenty-nine for Danielson but it took a while for WWE to take him seriously even after they got him), but they were popular and honed their skills through other promotions along the way. At first I thought that once again this was WWE just trying to make EVERYTHING about the WWE and so we can’t even acknowledge other places exist, but the documentary tells a slightly different story of a guy who had one dream to the detriment of everything else, and even then he had no idea what he was getting into or what it would take to live it out. Sure, some of that is in this movie still with Zack admitting that he doesn’t know anything else to do with his life, but it can only go so far into that without making Zack seem like an outright loser on top of him failing to make the cut. It’s not just him though; the documentary is much darker and honest than the movie which is light and marketable and while that isn’t NECESSARILY a bad thing (I’m still the ONE critic out there who loved Welcome to Marwen), the fact that the movie can only go so far into negatively portraying the wrestling business as a whole (Zack wrestling from such a young age is just another fun aspect of the family while in real life it had some negative effects on his physical development) along with the WWE being such an inspirational touchstone for everyone in the movie makes it all feel much more artificial than it should have been. Perhaps the most overt example of this is the ending where they fade to black and flash up some text about what happened to the real life people. You know what’s missing from that list? Paige’s retirement due to a neck injury she sustained in the WWE ring which came close to paralyzing her. Even if it is the kind of bummer ending that WWE has been distancing itself from despite being synonymous with it (Daniel Bryan for a while, Edge, Corey Graves), it seems disingenuous to just ignore that part when telling someone else’s story.
Perhaps a better movie could have been made if the WWE wasn’t involved as the pieces are there for a great family drama, but even with the WWE taking up half the screen time and the whole story feeling a bit more cleaned up than necessary, it’s still great in enough places that I’d still recommend seeing it. Certainly not on the big screen because of all the problems I listed, but when it gets a home release? Heck, there are only so many movies out there about wrestling that aren’t terrible as it, so why not? I’d probably recommend the documentary more because it doesn’t feel as compromised, but there’s a place for fluffier fare that’s easily digestible but not without some depth and nuance. Not nearly enough for my liking of course, but then some people still think Ronda Rousey is a good wrestler, so what do I know?