In Fighting With My Family, Stephen Merchant Brings Wit and Charm to a Wrestling Biopic

Mar 6, 2019 at 6:00 am
Saraya and Zak Knight (Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden) are wrestling siblings with shared dreams of glory.
Saraya and Zak Knight (Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden) are wrestling siblings with shared dreams of glory. ROBERT VIGLASKY/© 2018 METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES

The final weeks of winter are a slow and understated time for new movies, as the final survivors of the end-of-year awards races make a silent retreat from theaters and the studios cautiously let go of films that aren't quite big enough to go up against the seasonal superhero entries, but can (with luck) hold their own against a small trickle of animated sequels, second-tier action films and overwrought YA love stories. It's the time for Liam Neeson chasing after whoever he's mad at this year, or for inoffensive romantic comedies like Isn't It Romantic, a film which spends ten minutes self-consciously spelling out everything it's going to do and then seventy-nine more sticking to that plan.

In the midst of this, Stephen Merchant's charmingly odd Fighting With My Family has slipped into theaters with a relatively low profile. It's a biographical film, but one that deals with relatively recent events and whose subject is still only 26 years old. It's a sports film, with all the requisite emotional highs and lows, but it deals with a sport known for its passionate yet extremely marginalized audience. It's also a comedy (writer-director Merchant is, after all, best known as one of the co-creators of The Office), but one that relies less on gags than on a skewed, screwball-comedy ambiance.

Fighting with My Family is the story of Saraya Knight, better known by her stage name Paige, which she lifted from a character on the WB series Charmed. She's a young pro wrestler from Norfolk, England, who entered the family tradition at thirteen and fulfilled the family dream by working her way into the WWE's training program in the U.S.

The film follows Rocky convention in depicting her grueling training, but gives equal significance to how her success changed the dynamics of her wrestling-obsessed family. It features a strong central performance by Florence Pugh (which will come as no surprise to anyone who saw Lady Macbeth a few years ago), along with congenial performances from trainer Vince Vaughan and brief appearances by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the film's beefy fairy godfather. Merchant dutifully allows all of the familiar dramatic beats of a sports movie, but doesn't let them overshadow the broader and mildly off-kilter family drama.

Watching the film, I was reminded of the eccentric households in You Can't Take It With You or Arsenic and Old Lace, families so immersed in their own erratic perceptions and passions that they rarely notice — or care — that they're not like everybody else. Only when Saraya lands in the lonely world of WWE boot camp (also known as Orlando, Florida) does she realize what a strange nest she's left behind. Like the young romantics of those Capra films, she uses her not-quite-normal background to find her way through the puzzling world of professional sports entertainment, which is no less odd than Norfolk, but in different ways.

Whether you've heard of Paige or not, you know where the story is going, but Merchant keeps a cool distance. This isn't a story about triumphant heroism or athletic superiority; it's about wrestling as a kind of performance. Perhaps defying what you might expect from a film with the WWE imprimatur, Merchant presents professional wrestling not as a series of smackdowns, rivalries and athletic accomplishments, but as a carefully constructed exercise, each successful chokehold or piledriver the result of established moves and careful rehearsal. Like a hidden treasure or just-discovered-deed that might change the fortunes of a 1930s screwball family, the Knight family's devotion to their craft is their real secret. It's what holds them together and gives Saraya/Paige strength. In a profession where everything is a kind of performance (even Paige's "real" name Saraya Knight is a stage name), their professionalism is the true eccentricity.