That was my reaction to “Fighting With My Family,” a run-of-the-mill sports story that feels more like an extended ad for the WWE than the warm-hearted project it strives to be. The film is based on the true story of female wrestler Paige (Florence Pugh) and follows her career from an 18 year old girl in Norwich, England to the superstar she is today. The problem is that her story isn’t incredible and is far from compelling.
Paige was born into a wrestling family, where she and brother Zak (Jack Lowden) put on small town matches and gained rabid local fans. The siblings would often wrestle each other or their mum (Lena Headey) and dad (Nick Frost) to make money. After a rep at the WWE sees a tape of them in action, the duo are given an opportunity to audition for Coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) for a chance to begin a professional wrestling training camp. Paige makes the cut and Zak doesn’t, adding a bit of familial drama as he watches with sadness as his sister realizes his lifelong dream.
Cue the stirring music.
The movie feels like it was chewed up and spit out in a uniform box from the inspirational sports movie factory. Every emotional trope is trotted out on full display in this watered-down biopic. All expected clichés make their unwelcome appearance, from the heartfelt father / daughter talk to grating platitudes like “don’t worry about being the next me, be the first you!” It’s as unoriginal as a film can get.
The sanitized, feel-good scenes feel inauthentic and forced, especially when it comes to Paige’s wacky family. They are endearing, but they feel a bit like punk rockers on the “Leave it to Beaver” vanilla spectrum. It’s easy to like the characters and cast, however.
Pugh gives a firecracker of a performance as the goth girl turned famous idol, as does Headey as her wild streak, supporting mom. Frost shoulders much of the comic relief with his very funny nonchalant, deadpan delivery. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appears in a few scenes as himself and is delightful (as always). Vaughn’s onscreen contribution is another case of “Vince being Vince,” simply going through the motions and bringing nothing original to his character. You could edit his performance here into any of his other movies and it would fit right in because he’s so uniform.
Writer / director Stephen Merchant tries to bring humor and charm into the story whenever possible and mostly succeeds, especially when he doesn’t rely on mainstream slapstick gags like a man taking a trash can lid to the face. But what really bothered me, especially in a film that’s supposedly championing a strong, trailblazing female sports star, is Coach Hutch’s fondness for sexist jokes at the expense of women. You can argue that trash talk and ribbing is all part of their training ritual, but it feels unnecessary and out of place here.
The film is not as universal as it could be, and real fans of wrestling will likely enjoy this more than others. An appreciation for the sport isn’t totally required for viewing, but an understanding of how the WWE works (i.e. the wrestling matches are more spectacle and show than a real competitive sport) is important.
This is why “Fighting With My Family” doesn’t work as an inspirational sports film. There’s no underdog who’s the best around, works extra hard, and comes out on top. Even in the final match, it’s determined that Paige is going to win the WWE Divas title because it’s a prearranged, staged brawl. This makes all of the will-she-or-won’t-she, back and forth with her opponent all for nothing. There’s no suspense. There’s no drama. We already know what the faked outcome will be.