Fighting with My Family (2019)

Florence Pugh had what many actors would consider to be a career year in 2019.  She starred in Midsommar and Little Women, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter.  Her first movie out in 2019 was actually Fighting with My Family, and if I had seen that movie before the other two, I still would have been convinced she was a star in the making.  Together, the three films  showcase not just how nimbly she adapts to different genres (horror, period piece and comedy), but how convincingly she acted in each of them.  If it weren’t for COVID, I’m sure we would all be talking about her role in Black Widow, but we’ll have to wait until November (at the earliest).

Fighting with My Family tells the story of the Knight family, a family of wrestlers in Norwich, England.  The family consists of Ricky (Nick Frost), Julia (Lena Headey), Zak (Jack Lowden), Saraya (Florence Pugh), They support themselves by entertaining smaller crowds in town, even passing out flyers during the day to their own shows later in the evening.  Saraya, the daughter, attempts to convince a well-off trio of girls to come, but they resist.  Saraya asks them, “How do you know if you’ve never been?”  One girl replies, “I’ve never had rectal bleeding but I’m pretty sure I‘m not a fan of that either.”  To which Saraya retorts, “Why don’t I stick her head up your arse, and you can find out?”  Saraya has a lot to learn about salesmanship.

While the WWE is in London for Smackdown, Zak and Saraya are invited to try out for NXT, the WWE’s development division.  Out of about fourteen who perform during the tryout, only Saraya is chosen.  While Saraya gets to fly to Florida and pursue her dream, Zak’s dream is over.  He can continue wrestling locally, but he will never get another tryout with WWE again.  The rest of the movie will deal with the after effects of this turn of fate, where Saraya must gain the confidence and will power to pursue her dream, while Zak has to learn to accept his lot in life, which will be as a husband and a father, but not a professional wrestler.

Like most of the great movies about sports, there is a coach who serves as tormentor, motivator, confessor and mentor.  Vince Vaughn plays Hutch, the coach in this movie, and he is in his element here, throwing out sarcasm like it’s nobody’s business.  He also reminds us that he can be an effective dramatic actor as well.  In a very effective scene, Hutch explains to Saraya that Zak is a journeyman.  He only exists to make the star look good.  And while Zak can spend years chasing that dream of being a featured wrestler, that dream will never come for him.  While Saraya and her older brother Zak have wrestled since they were early teens, it is Saraya who has the ability to wrestle and is naturally charismatic.  The audience is immediately drawn to her.  Zak is an excellent wrestler, but has no charisma.  

The movie addresses the nature of wrestling several times.  While it may be scripted, it’s not fake.  The athleticism and coordination necessary to ensure the two (or more) combatants don’t seriously injure each other, or themselves, is considerable.  Even the off-the-beaten-path matches that Saraya and her wrestling family put on for local crowds have the skill necessary to be both entertaining and injury-free.  Watching the combatants run around the ring at each other, jump off ropes and flip each other around, I was reminded of the level of professionalism necessary to be a good wrestler, as well as someone that tens of thousands of fans in an arena will like and get behind.

This movie includes a fair share of sports movie cliches.  Saraya is an outsider that must learn to be a team player in order to get ahead.  She has to dig deep down to survive the rigorous physical training required to be a professional wrestler, which includes flipping semi-truck tires on the beach.  She has to learn how to combat hecklers, who can sense fear like sharks.  (Evidently, wrestling hecklers are nasty as hell.  Who knew?)  She also must stop doubting herself and seize the opportunity in front of her.  Sure, she isn’t tall and blond and pretty as the other women wrestlers she is training with.  But none of them have the spark Hutch says is necessary to become a top-line name in the WWE.

Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) is practically unrecognizable as Saraya’s mother Julia.  She was a drug user bent on her own self destruction until she and Ricky (Nick Frost) decide to go into wrestling.  Nick Frost is hilarious as the family patriarch, with every line seemingly peppered by a string of English curse words.

Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) makes several appearances in the movie, and he is dynamite in all of them.  He produced this movie, which is based on a true story.  He has about three scenes in the movie, and steals all of them.  I’ve probably said this before, but his megawatt smile definitely ranks near the top of the list of performers who can light up a room, a short list which would include Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Dennis Quaid.

In the end, Saraya fights through her fear and seizes her moment, becoming the youngest Diva title holder in WWE history.  Zak accepts his role as family man and local wrestling coach, and all live happily ever after.  While the movie is definitely a feel good story, it is also a true story, one where the underdogs come out on top.  Who doesn’t root for the underdog?

I’ve only seen two movies about wrestling, The Wrestler and now this one.  Both have been moving and featured top-notch acting.  Barton Fink would be proud.

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