Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Just five years into her career, British actress Florence Pugh has already turned plenty of heads, most notably with her awards-worthy 2016 breakout “Lady Macbeth” and recently with her work in the “Little Drummer Girl” series. So while it may be a touch too soon to anoint the still-evolving actress as entering a new stage in her work, her charming performance in “Fighting With My Family” is the kind of unexpected turn that does just that. Based on the real-life experiences of WWE Divas champion Paige, Stephen Merchant’s film is tasked with bridging the divide between relatable family dramedy and the kind of glossy, authorized look inside a multi-million dollar sports entertainment brand that includes not one, but two instances of Dwayne Johnson (who produced the film) ambling into frame to save the day. (The Rock is, of course, playing himself from his own wrestling days.)
Flipping between scenes of hard-luck domestic upheaval and the overproduced stage show that is the WWE isn’t a natural fit, but Pugh’s grounded work as Paige makes it a much easier sell, and Merchant’s winking humor adds some necessary self-reflexivity. At its core, however, “Fighting With My Family” benefits by sticking with well-trod sports movie tropes, enlivened by Pugh’s full-throttle performance and a genuine care for all of its motley players.
And, boy, are they motley. Paige’s origin story has already gotten the documentary treatment, thanks to the 2012 feature “The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family,” and audiences familiar with that film will appreciate the occasional retreads that enter into Merchant’s film. If nothing else, they’re a sterling reminder that this is all real: the Bevis family is indeed a wrestling-mad clan of British brawlers who have dedicated their lives to the sport, and it was Paige (real name: Saraya Bevis) who made their hardscrabble days worth it when she was plucked from relative obscurity to train with (and potentially join) the WWE.
The Bevis family is as colorful as they come, and Merchant has cast his film appropriately, with Nick Frost playing papa, Lena Headey as Saraya’s adorably off-kilter mom, and “Dunkirk” standout Jack Lowden playing Paige’s first grappling partner, big brother Zak. (Merchant himself appears for a handful of scenes, playing the straight man to the Bevis family and their wild ways.) Their homespun wrestling gang and local gym are an obvious contrast to the pre-packaged TV-ready stylings of the WWE world Paige is thrust into, and it’s no surprise that the WWE-approved scenes are the ones that feel most hammy and out of place.
Thankfully, it’s the relationship between Paige and Zak that frames the most relatable pieces of the film’s drama, because while Zak has always been viewed as the family’s star, it’s only Paige that gets called up to the big leagues. As Paige is tossed into the weird world of a Florida training camp — Pugh is at first unrecognizable in her goth-tinged gear, but it serves as one hell of a counterpoint to the rest of the sunny world she’s expected to embrace — Zak is stuck back home, simmering in his jealousy. While the elder Bevises might occasionally veer into cliche, Zak’s pain is real, and Paige’s frustration is well-earned. Even in the face of the pageantry and spectacle of the wrestling world they so love, they remain real people.
Less successful is Vince Vaughn, playing a WWE talent scout and coach (amusingly and wonderfully named Hutch Morgan), who arrives in London to check out the local talent and instantly slips into “Dodgeball”-esque mannerisms that are apparently hard to shake. (Still, even Vaughn gets a moment of humanity, one that takes on greater resonance when paired with his ability to colorfully weave a story with his staccato chatter.) Merchant takes care of his characters: even the seemingly ditzy model types who Paige must compete with at training camp break away from early perceptions to reveal real people underneath.
But this is Pugh’s show, and as Paige (literally) wrestles with her family and their expectations, Pugh continues to prove why she is one of the most exciting young actresses working today. You can’t possibly pin her down — later this year, she’ll appear in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” as Amy, a character about as far from Paige as conceivably possible — and yet she remains engaging and believable in every frame of the film. The beats of “Fighting With My Family” are comfortingly familiar, and the soap opera pomp of the wrestling world is eye-popping to both fans and neophytes alike, but it’s Pugh that is always fresh, surprising, and wily. The film might not hit hard, but Pugh never stops doing just that.
“Fighting With My Family” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. MGM will the film on February 14 in Los Angeles and New York and wide on February 22.