Johnson comes from a wrestling family himself, and the doc must have struck a chord for him, relating to the story of shared familial dreams and the burden of this responsibility that weighs heavy on whomever hits it big. British TV star and writer Stephen Merchant wrote and directed Fighting With My Family, and while he might not seem like the first choice for a movie about professional wrestling, what he brings to the film is an English cultural specificity and a focus on this unique family—their quirks and idiosyncrasies, the deep love they have for each other, and the internal conflicts that swirl around Paige’s rise to super-stardom.
Rising star Florence Pugh, who broke through with a ferocious performance in Lady MacBeth in 2017, is the perfect actress to portray the plucky Paige. She’s gritty and determined, and there’s something roiling within her—an attitude, a need to prove herself, a staunch refusal to quit. In the film, they call it “the spark,” something that she has that her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) just doesn’t.
Fighting With My Family is a parallel story between Paige and Zak, illustrating the archetypes of these two kinds of dreamers—those who are plucked from obscurity and tapped for stardom, and those who have to pursue their passion on a smaller level. It’s not about who wants it more, but about luck, persistence, and those undefinable star qualities. Pugh and Lowden, two of the best young English stars, have the chops to portray this emotional complexity, and Merchant is smart to put them front and center. It’s not just about Paige’s rise to fame—it’s about those who try and never make it; the families, friends, and communities back home that supported, developed, and loved a star, who depend on them to achieve the dreams they never did.
Wrestling is a dance, and part of the appeal of Fighting With My Family is the way it lays out what wrestling is and why people love it, for audiences that might not be as into the sport and the spectacle. It carefully explains the moral world of wrestling, the work and dedication it requires. “It’s not fake, it’s fixed,” the Knights declare. When Zak picks up a van full of kids for wrestling lessons, you delight in this ragtag bunch of misfits learning to use train their bodies and stay off the streets—to connect with each other.
It also helps that the movie is very funny. Nick Frost stars as dad Ricky, Lena Headey as mom Julia, and the two make an unlikely pair of unconventional parents who offer levity to the proceedings as Paige and Zak struggle to work out their destinies.
Merchant’s film follows Paige through her WWE NXT training in Florida and then all the way to Wrestlemania, where she became the youngest Divas champion in history in 2014, making her debut on the main roster and defeating AJ Lee for the title. This is the culminating moment of triumph in Fighting With My Family, and it’s so inspiring, it will bring tears to the eyes of even the most wrestling-averse viewer. It’s impossible not to resonate with her fraught journey, a young girl from small town England, the daughter of an ex-con, an outsider and immigrant who finds success when she embraces the things that make her uniquely herself—her accent, pale skin, dyed black hair, lip ring, baby goth Hot Topic duds and all.
But Paige also has to learn that as much as she’s been marginalized by the mainstream, it’s not right to return the favor. There’s a scene where she offers a “receipt” to a fellow wrestler who has continually elbowed her in the face and her WWE coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) demands an apology. It’s a bit of a metaphor for her story and a life lesson. When life hands you an elbow in the face, don’t give it a receipt, just try to understand and move through it.
Because Merchant lays the groundwork for such the emotional stakes of Paige’s journey, and Pugh so deftly captures the roller coaster of emotions the young star experiences, you’ll want to stand up and cheer when Paige triumphs in this winning family wrestling dramedy. Fighting With My Family just might make a a few more wrestling fans while it’s at it, too.
4 out of 5