Fighting With My Family

 

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The real-life story of a teenage wrestler from Norwich proves both hilarious and touching.

 

Fighting With My Family

Running rings: Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden on a winning streak

  

Saraya Bevis has been fighting her family for as long as she can remember, but in a good way. The Bevis clan are obsessed with wrestling and as a distraction from crime, paterfamilias Ricky Bevis (Nick Frost) decided to make fighting the family business. When Saraya, aged eight, was roughed up by her older brother, Zak, her mother Julia (Lena Headey) merely asked, “So what are you going to do about it?” What she did was to take her brother down in the ring and earn a reputation in Norwich as something of a firebrand, complete with flowing black hair and a ring in her nose. But there’s Norfolk and there’s the WWE. So when Saraya is eighteen, she (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) turn up at the O2 Arena in London for a try-out for the TV wrestling programme SmackDown. There, they bump into Dwayne Johnson and pump him for advice. After an uncharacteristic outburst, The Rock tells Saraya, “just be the first ‘you’.” Well, the girl is certainly an original…

 

Who would have thought? Stephen Merchant, the gangly partner of Ricky Gervais, doing a Bradley Cooper and directing, writing, producing and appearing in a major motion picture? Merchant has always been the wittier of the duo who brought us The Office, Extras and An Idiot Abroad, but as a filmmaker Gervais was the first out of the starting gate, co-directing The Invention of Lying (with Matthew Robinson) in 2009. Gervais then co-directed Cemetery Junction (2010) with Merchant, before going solo with Special Correspondents (2016) and David Brent: Life on the Road (2016). The sweet, acidic and frequently very moving Cemetery Junction was the best of the lot, which should have alerted us to the potential of Merchant as an accomplished helmsman in his own right.

 

For this Billy Elliot of the professional wrestling world, Merchant has delivered a comic drama that is genuinely funny, touching and inspirational – and replete with that old wit of his. The dialogue sparkles, as do the performances. If the world is unaware what a stellar presence Florence Pugh is, they should now. Following sterling turns in The Falling, Lady Macbeth and the TV miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, she really goes mainstream with this feel-good entertainment, presenting a feisty, credible, conflicted figure who can really kick butt. But she’s also got a formidable way with a put-down. When she’s told by Vince Vaughn’s strong-arm trainer that there’s no room for a timid British girl in the WWE, she retorts: “Not all British girls are timid. Like not all Americans are arrogant bastards. Just saying.” Vince Vaughn is terrific, too, his dry delivery bridging the gap between the brutal and the empathetic. For comic support, Nick Frost and Lena Headey don’t miss a beat (Ms Headey: “Dick me dead and bury me pregnant!”), while nobody can do Dwayne Johnson like Dwayne Johnson (he’s also the executive producer). If the emotional buttons are a little visible, Merchant certainly knows how to polish them. Besides, the film sticks to the salient facts with some fidelity. Once again, we have a real-life story that certainly seems stranger than fiction.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, Hannah Rae, Ellie Gonsalves, Aqueela Zoll, Kimberly Matula, Jack Gouldbourne, Julia Davis, Stephen Merchant, Tori Ross, James Burrows, John Cena.

 

Dir Stephen Merchant, Pro Kevin Misher and Michael J. Luisi, Ex Pro Dwayne Johnson and Stephen Merchant, Screenplay Stephen Merchant, Ph Remi Adefarasin, Pro Des Nick Palmer, Ed Nancy Richardson, Music Vik Sharma, Costumes Matthew Price, Nutritionist Pete Howe.

 

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Film4/The Ink Factory/Seven Bucks Productions/Misher Films/WWE Studios-Lionsgate.

107 mins. UK/USA. 2018. Rel: 27 February 2019. Cert. 12A.