Ask a random person on the street if they can name a WWE Superstar, and their response would likely be a name like John Cena or The Undertaker: larger than life personalities whose popularity has allowed them to transcend beyond the ring to become pop culture icons. But although Fighting With My Family is produced by the biggest crossover star the WWE ever created — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — this (mostly) true story is focused squarely on a self-proclaimed misfit who seized the opportunity to chase her dream.
As the youngest sibling in a household full of professional wrestlers, Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) never wanted to be part of the family business. But when her parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) convince her to fill-in for a match against her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden), Saraya becomes hooked on the adrenaline of performing. Soon, she’s wrestling every weekend and helping Zak train other local youths, with both brother and sister dreaming of a chance at stardom.
That chance comes when the family receives a phone call from Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), a trainer and talent scout for World Wrestling Entertainment who invites Zak and Saraya to tryout for a spot in the company’s developmental program. But when Saraya is signed to a contract and whisked off to the company’s training facility in Florida, Zak is left behind to face the brutal truth that his lifelong goal remains out of reach. “I wish you the best,” Hutch tells him. “But this is the end of the road for you.”
As Zak’s disappointment gives way to rage and jealousy, Saraya — adopting the moniker “Paige” — discovers that her pale skin, dark hair and all-black wardrobe are immediately at odds with the busty, bikini-clad girls who make up the rest of the female trainees. Paige may have been plucked from Norwich, England based on her talent, but the rest of the girls are here solely because of their looks, and none of them have any wrestling experience. While this scenario would seem to give our heroine a hefty advantage over the competition, her insistence at keeping the others at arm’s length — along with a growing crisis of self-confidence — threaten to derail Paige’s journey before it ever truly begins.
Fighting With My Family hews closely to the tried-and-true “underdog sports drama” blueprint, and like most biopics it plays a bit loose with the facts and the timeline, but director Stephen Merchant (working from his own screenplay) elevates the material by infusing it with plenty of wit and humor. Of particular note is a rollicking scene at the Knight family dinner table, where Merchant himself appears in a cameo as the father of Zak’s girlfriend, aghast at stories of Ricky’s previous exploits as a violent criminal and Julia’s descriptions of her husband’s nether regions. Vaughn is also given ample opportunity to showcase his comedic chops, effortlessly firing off insults and one-liners that land perfectly.
But despite these contributions, it’s Pugh that truly ties the film together, with an incredibly earnest and heartfelt performance that makes it impossible not to become invested in Paige’s journey. When Hutch asks her why she wants to be a wrestler, she tells him “when I’m in the ring, I feel like I belong,” a sentiment that will instantly resonate with anyone that’s ever felt like an outsider. The speech she gives to the live WWE audience during the film’s climax echoes these thoughts, and even though this moment is pure fiction and never actually occurred, thanks to Pugh’s sincerity it doesn’t ring any less true.