Fighting with My Family ★★★★

"Dick me dead and bury me pregnant", this was an enjoyable movie. But it's not the movie I was expecting. Being written and directed by Stephen Merchant, I was kind of expecting this to be much more comedic. Obviously, given Merchant's background, the potential for a big screen sitcom was there and I imagine it would have worked, unlike Walk Like a Panther. But actually what Merchant has given us instead is a standard, classically structured and traditional sports movie that focuses on the plucky underdog trope. And I'm really glad he did.

Inspired by Max Fisher’s Channel 4 documentary about the Knight family of wrestlers from Norwich, Fighting With My Family may be formulaic but it's nevertheless a crowd-pleaser that packs a powerhouse performance from Florence Pugh as Paige Knight; plucked from "the mustard capital of England" to the bright lights and baying crowds of America's WWE circuit. Pugh utterly commits to the role of Paige, conveying a perpetual outsider who has been written off all her life seizing the chance and defying all expectations whilst remaining true to the self the process ultimately helps her to discover. She may be a world away from her previous roles in The Falling, Lady Macbeth and The Little Drummer Girl here, but her transformation is nothing compared to Jack Lowden; the versatile actor who I'd last seen eerily recreate the young Morrissey (England is Mine) and Tony Benn (A United Kingdom) utterly convinces as Paige's big brother and mentor in the ring, making you genuinely wonder how this can be the same person.

I think Merchant's skill as a storyteller is that he doesn't only know when to make us laugh and when not to, he also knows what to make us laugh at. In Fighting with My Family, there's no jokes at the expense of its panto-like 'blue eyes vs heels' entertainment provided by the sport of wrestling, and this allows us to understand and invest not only in the drama as it unfolds via gruelling physical and mental training sessions but in just how important an escape out of Norwich this represents for Pugh's Paige. Equally, Merchant carefully employs a fine balancing act that allows us to appreciate and accept the humour of her family and background, whilst never once forgetting that these are real people who aren't as cuddly as they initially appear. An early scene which sees the clan meeting the prospective in-laws (played by Merchant himself and Julia Davis) is rightly depicted as a funny culture-clash, but he also rightly acknowledges that the very worst excesses of his central family - that one son is in prison for seriously assaulting someone - isn't really a laughing matter. He's aided here by some equally deft and good playing from Nick Frost and Lena Headey as Pugh's parents.

Of course Merchant's film has to appeal to both the UK and the US and, in pleasing the latter, he secures the help of Tooth Fairy co-star Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as an exec-producer behind the camera and playing himself in front of it. Of course, his appearance is shoehorned and his role in the story is wholly fictional, but the sheer charm Johnson possesses just about pulls it off. Faring better is Vince Vaughn as the trainer and talent scout who pushes Paige to the limits. Before Brawl In Cell Block 99 I don't think I'd ever say Vaughn was a bonus to any movie, but he lends the film some gravity and sells not only the promise that WWE represents for someone like Paige but also the hardships.

Like an odd mix between Billy Elliott and Personal Best, Fighting with My Family is a heartfelt, respectful film that boasts a positive message on the nature of individuality and of dreams, perseverance and commitment. Above all, and I don't know how true this is obviously (and I suspect it isn't very - when one of the production companies is WWE itself they're hardly going to paint a warts-and-all picture), but there's a genuine sense of family values and solidarity that transcends not only the Knight household but also the world of wrestling itself.

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