In brief: I watch professional wrestling. It’s one of those interests that I keep mostly to myself, having lost the conviction to defend my ritual habit of consuming NXT, WWE, NJPW, and AJPW content. When the subject, (never brought up by me) is discussed at a party, the same exhausting repartee tends to take place, whereby the nonfan acknowledges the viewer with a cynical, somewhat condescending tone, reiterating some variation of “but isn’t it fake?” At which point, my skin crawls with goose bumps and my eyeballs make a full 360 rotation behind my skull as I sulk out of earshot of the conversation, so as not to get involved. Discussing this interest, particularly with those who consider it little more than a facsimile of a sport, can just be so taxing. Linking the interest with my passion for film, even doubly so. But I get it: there’s a culture, there’s a fanbase, there’s a stigma associated with professional wrestling that makes it primarily a blue-collar, fundamentally thoughtless mode of entertainment intended to satisfy a certain kind of, ahem, fringe type.
Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family attempts to dislodge the stereotype by embracing it, deploying a rote sports narrative as if to propose that professional wrestling is just like any other sport. The result is an innocuous, WWE Studios-approved exercise, intended for generic uplift that sacrifices specifics for something safe and anodyne. Brief interludes suggest something more profound or simply strange (so few films, even about wrestling, really examine how elementally bizarre the sport can be), but these asides are just too infrequent to leave a notable impression.
Fighting with My Family details the life of a wrestling family, with Ricky and Julia Knight (Nick Frost and Lena Heady) heading a small wrestling promotion in Norwich, England. Their two children, Zak and Raya (Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh) follow in their footsteps, with both aspiring to become WWE superstars. Raya’s bedroom is littered with images of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin donning their WWF Championship titles, in the sort of imagery that’s familiar to me as I grew up during the teen-oriented Attitude Era. With the news that the WWE will be holding tryouts nearby, both Zak and Raya are invited to attend. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, arriving at an ideal time as Zak is preparing to have his first son.
As these things were, only Raya, now adopting the stage name Paige, secures a top-shelf performance center invitation, leaving her family behind in Norwich to continue down their path. What develops here is a fairly prototypical dramatic divide between expectations and reality, with Paige’s background and appearance making her something of a social piranha to her performance center colleagues while Zak struggles with drinking as he spirals deeper and deeper toward despair over his failure to secure the position that his sister has. If the dramaturgy is a little rote, than at least both Lowden and especially Pugh give the banalities a little more nuance. Not so sophisticated are Vince Vaughn’s interludes as Paige’s coach/Matt Bloom stand-in. During a scene where Paige is advised of improving her promo delivery content, whereby she’s accused of using material well past its expiration date, I couldn’t help but consider it as an auto-critique on Vaughn’s character.
Merchant’s an adequate stylist and I won’t deny that during some of Paige’s more harrowing moments of despair I was taken aback by the quality of images he was able to conjure up. But ultimately, the compositions here are mostly flat and derivative, inspired by every sports redemption story imaginable. There’s an inherent likeability to Fighting with My Family that I won’t argue is infectious and makes so many of the platitudes that the film regurgitates easier to swallow (the cast here is vital), but step back and examine what pro wrestling is and how the film reflects on Paige’s involvement in what’s a contemporary wrestling biggest paradigm shift (for the first time in 35 years, an all female main event is looking to headline Wrestlemania) and you’re left wondering how it could produce something this unimaginative.