Monday 6 January 2020

On demand: "Fighting with My Family"

A 2019 sleeper hit, Fighting with My Family constitutes WWE Studios' valentine to the Knight-Bevis clan, stalwarts of the East Anglian wrestling scene (in the movie, they fight under the "World Association of Wrestling" banner, which has an air of that "Kelvin Kline" underwear you can pick up off the market) who gave the WWE an emergent superstar in the form of their youngest daughter Saraya-Jade, better known internationally under the ringname Paige. Writer-director Stephen Merchant has remodelled them into something like a modern sitcom family: the roguish ex-jailbird father (Nick Frost), whose idea of dressing up for dinner is to sling on an XXL Norwich City top; his adoring yet no-nonsense wife (Lena Headey), herself a grappler of note; and their pride-and-joy offspring (Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh), damned as freaks by snobs who can't or won't see the extraordinary showmanship and athleticism in what they do. Merchant acknowledges the fakery of wrestling, but takes care to celebrate what's real about this scene and story: the spectacle, being not so far removed from the spectacular fakery of the movies, the camaraderie and love, and this young woman's achievement in going from the outer reaches of suburban Norwich to one of the world's biggest stages, lifting up so many people around her as she went.

Fighting with My Family is headed in one direction, then - there aren't many plot surprises - but it offers the considerable fun of watching very different styles of performer meshing together. It's the Paige story first and foremost, and while we witness the birth of that career, we might again be struck by the very great skill with which Pugh's career has so far been marshalled. Each new project of this actress has become an opportunity to showcase another side of her personality: here, she goes full Norfolk Goth, dying her hair coal-black and demonstrating a mean sulk, but Pugh also gets to take the fight to the opposition in a way the heroines of British cinema, whether prettified by period drama or ground down by gritty realism, generally don't. (Saraya-Jade may be the most memorable character of her socioeconomic type since Katie Jarvis's Mia in Fish Tank.) Behind her, Frost, Headey and Lowden are stitching an appreciably idiosyncratic support network-cum-safety net, while Vince Vaughn - as the head of the WWE's Performance Center - seems to have been nudged awake and back into snappy life by his bristling young co-star, and there's a poster-bolstering cameo from Dwayne Johnson, playing himself as the presiding spirit of wrestling.

No disrespect to the big man, but Fighting with My Family hardly seems to need him. Merchant, who - lest anybody forget - had as much influence on the eventual direction of The Office as his louder pal Ricky Gervais, hasn't lost any of his old crowdpleasing instincts, slipping in some cheerfully bawdy humour that positions the film at the higher end of the 12A certificate, overseeing a midfilm makeover that doesn't sell out his pale-and-proud heroine, and staging a brawl in a taproom to the strains of Cliff Richard's "Mistletoe and Wine". He ensures every single emotional beat is earned and lands, and within the confines of an indie studio's dual-location shoot, fashions a nice, dramatically resonant contrast between poky, overcast Britain and the spacious, sunny L.A. Paige decamps to - a place that could yet seem alienating were our heroine not possessed of a heart and spirit broadly the size of The Rock's shoulders. There are some wildly successful movies you watch as a critic and wonder what on earth the paying public saw in them; Fighting with My Family, being the most enjoyable wrestling picture since the last Mickey Rourke comeback, is not one of those instances. Who'd have thought Stephen Merchant would turn out to be our own Barton Fink?

Fighting with My Family is now streaming on Netflix, and available on DVD through Lionsgate.

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