Director: Stephen Merchant
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden & Lena Headey
Runtime: 1 hour & 48 minutes
Let me preface this review by saying I hate sports. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve never seen the appeal of physical competition. I was never that fast, strong or aggressive. I simply didn’t care for athletics and to this day it just isn’t my thing. I typically feel the same way about sport-centric movies. They don’t usually grab my attention or move me in anyway. So, when I first heard about “Fighting with My Family,” I wasn’t exactly sold on seeing it. I didn’t see any trailers for it, I only knew that it was being produced by Dwayne Johnson and had Lena Headey in the cast. I went in scared that I’d find the film uninteresting and sit in an uncomfortable theater chair bored for almost two hours. I’m happy to report that despite my fears, “Fighting with My Family” packs quite the emotional punch.
To give a brief rundown of what the film is about, it all centers on the true story of Saraya Bevis (played by Florence Pugh) and her family who are obsessed with wrestling. Her parents push she and her brother Zak (played by Jack Lowden) to wrestle from a young age, with each of them becoming quite good. They both develop a dream to wrestle in the WWE and the opportunity arises after they submit audition tapes. Saraya is the only person who gets picked to continue on after try outs, with her brother staying behind in their hometown. From there, we see the ups and downs of Saraya and her family after she travels to Florida to train for the WWE.
The script of this film is written with plenty of wit and warmth to match. The humor is effective to the point that I had to wonder if Saraya and her family were truly this funny. The jokes are always either sharp or heartfelt, not a single one feels out of place. I appreciate the film balancing Saraya’s off-kilter family with a nuanced realism and heart. The onscreen family felt very real to me, a credit to the writing and the acting.
Thematically, the film deals with plenty of engrossing issues. This being a true story, the film did have an easy time finding themes to work with. It’s the subtle execution of these themes onscreen that is so incredibly impressive. People projecting both their dreams and failures onto others is something that Saraya deals with throughout the course of her story. Her family puts all of their own baggage and ideals onto Saraya. The film portrays her as sympathetic in this regard, as she’s just trying to find herself while realizing her own dreams. There’s also exploration of embracing your imperfections or what makes you weird in the film. Saraya is constantly hearing that she’s a freak or that her family is strange, and throughout the story she has to learn to fully embrace who she is. This is showcased in a way that mirrors a phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s beautiful seeing Saraya grow into herself, you root for her to the very end.
I love how good of a job the movie does at being fair to its characters. Each character has flaws and makes mistakes, as they are based off of real human beings. Saraya’s parents are very pushy toward their children in their pursuit of money. Despite this, I never once doubted that the parents truly loved their children. I think that they wanted the best for them but got caught up in their own dreams. Zak also struggles with not being able to realize his dreams while also being grateful for what he has. Though he clearly went through a frustrating time, the film doesn’t judge him for this behavior. Even Saraya makes her own mistakes, misjudging some of her fellow WWE trainees and almost quitting when things get hard. Instead of judging any of the characters, they’re portrayed as flawed but resilient. It’s a success that the film can show humanity at its best and worst without demonizing or idealizing it.
All of the rich themes wouldn’t be so wonderfully realized if it weren’t for the amazing cast at work here. Pugh is wonderful as Saraya, giving her own vibrant energy to the real life portrayal. She comes across as very sharp in her comedic timing, nailing every fiery one-liner with ease. The true strength of her performance lies in her ability to move the audience with just a subtle look. The moment where Saraya finds out that Zak is rejected by the WWE feels like a gut punch the moment that Pugh turns to the camera. She masterfully handles the layers of Saraya with vulnerability and strength, she’s a wondrous onscreen presence.
Pugh is joined by a tremendous supporting cast, starting with the always fantastic Headey, who does outstanding work here, bringing her dramatic gravitas that we’ve seen before but surprising with her remarkable comedic abilities. She delivers humorous lines with enthusiasm and spot on timing, it’s lovely to see her show off her obviously wide range. Nick Frost is delightful as Saraya’s father, giving a performance that is both parts hysterical and poignant. Lowden is a good match for Pugh as Zak, skillfully showcasing the inner turmoil he went through during this time. Vince Vaughn is also quite good as Saraya’s trainer in the movie. He delivers a performance that is filled with heart, humor and gusto.
I have to give director Stephen Merchant credit for making me actually care about sports. Of course, a large part of my investment of the wrestling in the film was due to my care for Saraya, but Merchant executes the fights masterfully. I was engrossed in seeing what move would come next every time someone entered the ring. I felt the tension whenever Saraya was fighting and that is due in large part to Merchant’s directing skills. I have to applaud him for convincing me for at least once in my life that I might be able to feign interest in a sport.
This is a movie that the world needs right now. It’s a story that will make you feel good without being cloyingly cheesy. It’s a rousing tale that will get your blood pumping and the fact that it’s true makes it 10 times better. I had never heard the story of Saraya Bevis before seeing this film, but it’s now a story I’ll never forget. This film moved me to tears and made me invested in a subject that I had previously hated. In my opinion, that makes “Fighting with My Family” a true cinematic champion.