During one particularly telling scene in the biographical film “Fighting with my Family,” Vince Vaughn’s Hutch, a man who trains prospective WWE wrestlers, explains that wrestling ability is only part of what it takes to be a superstar in that field. The moves can only get you so far, you have to make the crowd love you by the way you handle yourself and the attitude you project.
This is a very aware moment in the film written and directed by Stephen Merchant., and it is the biggest issue for Saraya-Jade Knight (Florence Pugh), aka Paige, to overcome during this tale of her success. The film, just like Paige, succeeds in spades when it is in the ring, when it is focusing on the dazzling moves offered by the would-be professional wrestlers. It is also nowhere near as compelling when it slows down to take a look a the family story of the Knights, a tale which largely revolves around Paige and her brother, Zak (Jack Lowden).
During these family moments the movie plays out largely like any number of other underdog sports stories. The two kids have grown up around their parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), who run a small wrestling group. Both kids have wanted to be a part of the WWE for years (as did their older brother who didn’t make it). Both kids try out. Only one is accepted into the training program and consequently both struggle with the fallout as they have leaned on one another. Whether or not the tale at this moments is true, Merchant and company never elevate it above something the audience will have seen a plethora of times.
Paige, the film tells us, needs to believe in herself in the same way that her family believes in her. She needs to be more confident in who she is even if she feels she doesn’t reach the same beauty standards as the models and cheerleaders she is competing against for a spot in the WWE.
Although being happy with who one is on the inside as well as the outside is an important message, it is not dealt with in a compelling way here. This all plays out as the women take part in WWE’s NXT training program and this portion of the film continues for far too long without going anywhere that is either interesting or not telegraphed.
The only highlight of this section of the film is Vaughn, who brings an energy and ferocity to his role. He is given a standard character for a sports film, the tough exterior coach with the heart of gold, but he excels at it.
That this section of “Fighting with my Family” disappointments is made that much more painful because the movie starts off so brilliantly, with Frost and Headey making an incredibly great, and funny, pair. The first half-hour or so of the movie is an utter riot. It just peters out as the actual story commences. From that point, it only excels in the ring, and it does so even when the moves look distinctly fake and the punches pulled.
Merchant and the cast bring an effervescence to these sequences whether they occur in front of a large crowd or a small one. They alone make the film worth it, but one wishes that there were more of them.
There is a reason that sports stories work– we love to root for the underdog and watching them overcome a challenge is exciting. That is why there are so many tales that follow the formula.
In the opening half-hour of “Fighting with my Family,” with its incredible abundance of humor, it appears as though Merchant is well on his way to making a legendary underdog tale. That all slips away, however, and in the end we are left with something far more average, something that the crowd isn’t really going to get behind. It is good, but it could have been a superstar.
photo credit: MGM