‘Fighting With My Family’
Playing in the Premieres section of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 103 minutes. Next screenings: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 8:30 p.m., The MARC Theatre, Park City.
One might read the premise of “Fighting With My Family” and dismiss it as a warm, fuzzy family story wrapped up in the artificiality of professional wrestling and the spectacle of the WWE.
OK, it’s all that, but it’s also a lot more. Writer-director Stephen Merchant, the co-creator of “The Office,” has crafted a smart, funny, sharp and emotionally charged story about family ties, the business of sports entertainment, and an underdog tale of pushing through self-doubt. It’s a winner, in more ways than one.
The family in question is the Bevis family of Norwich, England, which runs a scruffy pro wrestling franchise that sets up in bars and other dives across England. Everyone wrestles in this family: Dad (Nick Frost), Mum (Lena Headey), big brother Zak (Jack Lowden) and little sister Saraya-Jade (Florence Pugh) — whose wrestling name is Britani Knight. When the family sends an audition tape to the WWE, they get a call from talent scout and coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), who invites Zak and Saraya-Jade to try out when the WWE is in London.
Morgan tells the auditioning wrestlers that the WWE isn’t just looking for athleticism, but for that “spark.” Pro wrestling is “soap opera in spandex,” and the ability to please a crowd is as important as the strength to throw another wrestler to the ground. (Talking about the importance of pleasing the crowd in a crowd-pleaser movie is meta-storytelling at its finest.)
Saraya-Jade, who takes the name Paige (from Rose McGowan’s character in “Charmed”) because WWE already has a Britani, turns out to have that “spark,” in Morgan’s view. She’s the only one Morgan picks to go to Florida to train in WWE’s NXT development program — which is a blow to Zak’s ego, and his lifelong dream of joining the WWE.
The rest of the movie follows Saraya-Jade’s, er, Paige’s struggle to make it through the NXT, discover her identity as a wrestler, and follow the advice of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who appears as himself because who else could play him) to be authentic: “Don’t be the next me, be the first you.” Pugh, who burst on the scene in the intense “Lady Macbeth,” proves herself a star here, handling the comic and serious moments beautifully.
Merchant paces “Fighting With My Family” incredibly well, shifting deftly from dreary Norwich to sunny Florida, and finding the humor and heart of the Bevis family’s unique form of tough love.