Make a list of filmmakers who should helm a semi-serious movie about professional wrestling, and Stephen Merchant will probably rank somewhere around Todd Solondz. The gangly, self-effacing co-creator of The Office excels with awkward interactions between dweebs and the self-deluded, not the firestorms of ego that captivate fans of the eternal soap opera of the ring. But he does hail from England, which, to hear him tell it, is why Dwayne Johnson called him up to write and direct a film about a real-world English family of wrestlers who sent their daughter to join the WWE. The result, Fighting With My Family, reminds us several times that the sport is as much about charismatic storytelling as it is about skill. Judged by that standard, the pic is far from belt-worthy — a likeable enough but familiar tale that will feel more at home at the multiplex than it does at Sundance. Though this year’s fest can’t stop congratulating itself for the risks it purportedly takes, Fighting With My Family takes exactly none.
Florence Pugh plays Saraya Knight, whose father and mother (Nick Frost and Lena Headey) run a rinky-dink wrestling league in Norwich. As a child, she had no desire to join the family racket. But after being pushed into a public bout with brother Zak, she found it thrilling. From then on, the two siblings dreamt of nothing but the WWE.
Several years later, as they struggle to attract audiences to the family’s bouts, they get the call: Though Dad has been trying to attract American interest in a full-family act, talent-spotters have instead decided to let Saraya and Zak (Jack Lowden) audition as individuals. On their way into the coliseum, they have a starstruck encounter with The Rock. In one of the actor’s two scenes here, he encourages the youths not to try to be the next Rock, but to be the first versions of themselves. Before we’ve digested this eminently tweetable advice, Zak has been cut by talent scout/coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn, more in tune with the genre’s demands than anyone here). Only Saraya will be going to Florida, and when she tries to strong-arm Hutch into taking Zak as well, Zak reminds her that the family’s well-being depends on her success. She goes.
In Florida, Saraya (who has had to rebrand herself as Paige) is crestfallen to learn that most of the other women accepted into the NXT training program know nothing about wrestling. They’re models or cheerleaders chosen for their looks, and there’s something icky about the movie’s use of this as a plot device, since the filmmakers behave just like the exploitative WWE: Watch as Instagram celebrity Ellie Gonsalves stands in the center of a frame, dripping wet in an inadequate bikini, her face acknowledging that all she has to do is look hot until someone yells “Cut!” Later, when the film wants to show that Paige was wrong to judge them, it makes the mistake of giving Gonsalves (not one of the other women, who have actually worked as actresses) the sarcastic line, “We’re just tits and ass, right?”
Strangely (and kind of unbelievably), despite her skill with moves in the ring, Paige lags behind the models when it comes to the basic-training drills Hutch puts them through. This generates a crisis of confidence that makes for the movie’s central, if not exactly compelling, drama.
Back home there’s Zak, who is mood-swinging through a lot of self-pity, anger and resentment that his sister got picked and he didn’t. Someone unfamiliar with the Knight family’s story might read the film’s title as a promise that Zak will eventually get his chance to shine in the spotlight of American rasslin’, maybe in some attention-getting tag-team with his sister. That’s what makes this story deserve a movie, right?
Nothing of the sort happens, and though Paige does conquer her demons, her entry into the pro arena is underwhelming. The pic ends on the one and only chance she gets to tell the world who she truly is. There wasn’t enough struggle to get here to justify any sense of triumph.
Production companies: WWE Studios, Seven Bucks Productions, Misher Films
Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson
Director-screenwriter: Stephen Merchant
Producers: Kevin Misher, Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, Stephen Merchant, Michael J. Luisi
Executive producers: Andy Berman, Hiram Garcia, Daniel Battsek
Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin
Production designer: Nick Palmer
Costume designer: Matthew Price
Editor: Nancy Richardson
Composers: Vik Sharma, Graham Coxon
Casting director: Shaheen Baig
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes