Florence Pugh, Stephen Merchant, The Rock, Norwich – a recipe for a real treat.
Director: Stephen Merchant
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jake Lowden, Dwayne Johnson
Release date: Out now
Reviewer: Simon Brew
At heart, Fighting With My Family is a pretty familiar take on the Rocky story. In this case, at its heart are a brother and sister – Paige and Zak – who live in Norwich, but dream of being famous WWE wrestlers. The odds are stacked against them, and within a few minutes you may correctly place a good deal of the story beats together.
Yet, to borrow a phrase from the cliché cupboard, it’s not always where you’re going, it’s also how you get there. And what writer/director Stephen Merchant captures here is a story full of charm, wit and emotional moments. One that also happens to be true.
Based in part on a 2012 Channel 4 documentary, the film introduces us to the Knight family of Norwich. The early stages are the slowest, but we get to know Florence Pugh as Paige, Jack Lowden as Zak, with Nick Frost and Lena Headey as their parents. It’s a family that’s gone through plenty of scrapes, bonded by a communal love of wrestling. The ingredients Merchant focuses his story on are the divesting stories of Paige and Zak, and the testing journey to possible WWE fame. Crucially, some Hollywood heft lends added authenticity with Dwayne Johnson (who also produces) absolutely nailing the role of Dwayne Johnson, whilst Vince Vaughn gets to test his chops as the tough-as-nails coach.
The film finds its footing fairly quickly, and it’s very easy to start rooting for the leads, not least given how good Pugh and Lowden’s respective performances are. In Merchant’s eyes too, every character matters, and each is given a reason for being in the story. Without spoiling things, it veers a little off the expected path from time to time, yet Fighting With My Family still deliberately treads quite familiar boards.
What really elevates it, though, are its heart and its funny bone. Unexpectedly moving in places – yeah, I sobbed – there’s little shying away from the tougher edges of the story. But also, there’s a lot of very, very effective humour. One standout sequence, testing the patience of Johnson, is quite brilliant, and chuckles are not in short supply. We’ve seen a few films attempt to do what Fighting With My Family does over the past years – Swimming With Men is an interesting recent example – that then struggle when it comes to the final act. This one doesn’t. At a point the film needs to hit its dramatic highs, that’s when Merchant’s story really lands. He’s made a hugely satisfying film here, playing to a broad audience and laying down a welcome mat whether wrestling fan or not.
A real success this, and the best British comedy for some time.