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Wrestling movies have been around since Hollywood’s early days, but the warm and winning Fighting with My Family comes closest to representing the actual spirit of the sport: It’s full of clichés, is built to appeal to the broadest audience possible, and requires a deep and willing suspension of disbelief. Yet you somehow get wrapped up in its victories and defeats all the same, and despite your best intentions, you will find yourself cheering from the edge of your seat.
Based on the life of WWE star Paige, Fighting with My Family places itself squarely in a familiar but fading genre: the sports underdog movie. Married couple Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) are former hustlers who make ends meet in Norwich, England, by running a low-rent wrestling league. Short on talent, they employ their grown kids, the goth-influenced Saraya (Florence Pugh) and wholesome Zak (Jack Lowden), as their star athletes. The family lives a hard life, with money always tight, but the film sees this as a virtue. It champions their lowbrow lifestyle—and lowbrow sport—by equating their economic struggles with authenticity. They may be poor, but they’re happy with their dreams of stardom.
When Saraya and Zak try out for the WWE and only the former is chosen for the second audition in America, Saraya is forced to break from the family in order to save it. With her new stage name Paige (inspired by her favorite witch on TV’s Charmed), she endures a grueling wrestling bootcamp led by Hutch (Vince Vaughn) and struggles to fit in with her more camera-ready cohorts, most of whom are either models or cheerleaders.
This tried-and-true premise—a scrappy underdog succeeds on grit and determination—is presented without a hint of subversion, but at least it doesn’t shy away from unpleasant realities. The film knows the difference, for example, between spontaneous and scripted violence. A barroom brawl and a wrestling match that goes haywire feel dangerous and real. Forced to contend with the death of his childhood dream back in England, Zak becomes dangerously depressed. Written and directed with just the right amount of depth by funnyman Stephen Merchant, Fighting with My Family lives up to the double-meaning of its title. It is ultimately focused on giving you a good show, but it always keeps one eye on real familial dysfunction.
Wrestling is defined by its characters, though, and the film succeeds largely due to its genial cast, a crew of recognizable actors doing exactly what you want them to, and little more. Frost is his usual lovable dimwit, and he is even blessed with a son, played by Lowden, who looks remarkably like Simon Pegg, his frequent collaborator. Dwayne Johnson almost wins the film in an extended cameo as himself, charming us all without even getting into the ring or breaking a sweat.
Fighting with My Family may be best remembered, however, as a tale of two stars, one ascendant and one settling into the second act of his career. Vaughn, who proved too acerbic to become the leading man he was projected to be, recycles his smarmy drill instructor bit from Hacksaw Ridge, and he is a welcomed, familiar presence. As a star, his charm was always undercut by seething anger, but now it is even more poignant, serving as a shortcut to explaining the defeats of middle age. This role previews a longevity to his career that was once far from assured.
Meanwhile, Pugh, who first gained notice as an underestimated Victorian housewife in 2016’s Lady Macbeth, becomes a star in real time here. Turning her vulnerability as a misfit into her identity as a performer, Paige wins over the crowd in the final scenes, and that includes us sitting in the dark. She has a gritty magnetism, as an athlete and an actress, that cannot be faked, even if it is staged. With a winning film at her back, she is a star not simply born but wrestled into existence.
Fighting with My Family opens Friday in theaters everywhere.