Rising star Florence Pugh shines – and kicks – her way through this WWE wrestling comedy that has a lot of heart in between all the clichés and bruises.
Pushed into pre-production when Dwayne Johnson saw and loved the Channel 4 doco The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, Johnson persuaded writer/director Stephen Merchant to make it into a biopic (Dwayne was a big fan of The Office too, which Merchant co-created). The result is a strongly-cast, sometimes bitterly funny character piece that doesn’t quite make fun of professional wrestling. But almost.
A flashback to 2000 has a young Zak Knight (here played by Thomas Whilley) clashing with his sister Saraya (here played by Tori Ellen Ross) over whether they’re going to watch wrestling or the original series of Charmed. Saraya realises she has a gift when she fights her brother off, and both kids are then encouraged by their enthusiastic parents Ricky and Julia (Nick Frost and Lena Headey, both wonderful). 10 years later they celebrate when the siblings are asked to try out at a ‘SmackDown’ taping at London’s O2 Arena.
Saraya (now played by Florence Pugh) and Zak (now played by Jack Lowden) attend, get star-struck after a somewhat harsh meeting with Dwayne Johnson (who plays himself in two scenes), and start working with Hutch Morgan, who’s played with tough depth by Vince Vaughn. And naturally, at the end of the day, it’s Saraya (now named ‘Paige’) who’s the only young ‘un selected to go on to big-time training in Florida.
So there you have it: Saraya/Paige, who didn’t quite take it all entirely seriously, is the one chosen for a chance at real fame, while lifelong wrestling tragic Zak is left to continue on the Norwich amateur circuit and provide for his poorly-treated partner Courtney (Hannah Rae) and their new baby. What happens when your great hopes don’t work out? Could you forgive your own sister if she (supposedly) stole your dreams? And is professional wrestling all totally staged and choreographed? Hmm…
With fine work from Dwayne (who is happy to portray himself as, at first, kind of a bastard), Lena, Nick, Vince and Jack, this is nevertheless most memorable for the Oxford-born Pugh’s performance as the slightly scary Paige. Known for posh, prestige movies like Lady Macbeth, she attacks the role with real feeling and never treats Paige as some sort of fool or chav. She might well be working alongside established stars here, but she’s the one you’ll be watching.
Fighting With My Family (M) is in cinemas now