It’s the mark of many a standout sports movie that you don’t necessarily have to be a fan to enjoy the story. The real-life pro wrestling portrait “Fighting With My Family” is a hugely entertaining case in point.
Made under the brawny auspices of World Wrestling Entertainment and star alum Dwayne Johnson, the film profiles Paige, nee Saraya-Jade Bevis, a WWE women’s division champion with a backstory not even Vince McMahon could have cooked up. Check that — it might actually be more accurate to characterize “Fighting” as a two-fer showcase. A significant part of the drama also involves Bevis’s brother, Zak, who shares her passion for wrestling and then some, but agonizingly, doesn’t get to share in the WWE spotlight.
Florence Pugh, recently seen as medieval royalty in Netflix’s “Outlaw King,” makes an impressive chameleonic switch to play punk-styled Paige (initially called Saraya Knight here, after another of Bevis’s ring monikers). She might be an outcast, but she fits right in with her provincial English family, a lovably hardscrabble bunch who operate a minor-league wrestling outfit, the World Association of Wrestling “out of Norwich.” (For those who were asking, “What-the-Barton-Fink is British quirkmeister Stephen Merchant doing making a wrestling picture,” consider your question answered.)
There’s Paige’s dad (Nick Frost), her mum (Lena Headey), and her charismatic brother (Jack Lowden, channeling Frost’s comedy mate Simon Pegg). Together, they’re like the Partridges of grappling, down to the head-bangin’ ride they use to ferry neighborhood kids to matches.
Still, “come on, get happy” proves a tricky directive for this crew after Paige and Zak head to a WWE tryout in London, and jaded scout-in-charge Hutch (terrifically cast Vince Vaughn) picks her but not him. So much for the Rock’s cameo-player words of advice to both starstruck sibs. Paige packs her bags for Hutch’s recruit academy in Florida, heartsick, homesick, and soon also crumpling under the rigors of training for a shot at the big show. (Sitcom vet Merchant’s directing is unexpectedly effective in conveying this “fake” sport’s preparatory grind, as the movie’s training scenes emphatically demonstrate what it takes to pass WWE main-event muster.)
Meanwhile, back in Norwich, Zak struggles to hold his own against a wicked tag team: Bitter Envy and Crushed Dreams. It’s an addictively juicy spot the family finds itself in, particularly when Paige returns for the holidays, greeted by brotherly resentment and her parents’ meal-ticket expectations. Few “Rocky” stories are quite this
FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY
Written and directed by Stephen Merchant. Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Dwayne Johnson. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 108 minutes. PG-13 (crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence, drug content).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.