Stop me if you've heard this one before....
Vince Vaughn, The Rock, Cercei Lannister, and Ed from Shaun of the Dead all walk into a bar... yeah, so I don't really have a punch line for you, but this eclectic group of actors play signifcant roles in what I gleefully annoint the first great film of 2019.
Fighting With My Family, written and directed by Stephen Merchant, grabs you in a head lock and refuses to relinquish its grip throughout its 108 minute run time. Everything happening inside the wrestling ring may be staged, but the origin story of WWE diva Paige, from her modest beginning in the north of England, to her unlikely ascension on the biggest stage pro wrestling has to offer, feels very much unplanned.
Raised in a household of wrestlers, led by their parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julie (Lena Headey), Zak (Jack London) and Saraya (Florence Pugh), have fake tussled their childhood away in grungy venues to a spattering of enthusiasm levied by the Norwich, UK locals. Wrestling is the lifeblood of the Knights, and they have the Stone Cold Steve Austin posters on their walls to prove it.
What must it feel like to want something so badly, that to not achieve it would result in psychological turmoil, wherein you succumb to bouts of depression and regret which eat away at your core? To be able to reach out and touch your dreams, but not quite be able to hold onto them? To live in a headspace in which failure to achieve that dream is akin to failure of total worth? This anxiety inducing scenario is what awaits the Knight siblings when they audition for the opportunity to be signed by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
You'd think by looking closely at the cast, this would be a straight up comedy, and though a good chunk of the film is undeniably funny, there are also strong currents of heartfelt, emotional drama weaved throughout. Fighting With My Family is based on a true story, so to tell it without all of the requisite family and societal melodrama wouldn't service the impact of the story at all. The script does tend to latch onto some genre cliches like a full nelson, right up to the working hard, Rockey-esque montage, but the work of the exceptional cast keeps most of the low hanging fluff from being a distraction.
As good as the supporting cast is (Vince Vaughn deserves some early supporting actor cudos here) however, the spark which ignites Fighting is Pugh as Paige (the stage name she adopts, based on a character from her favorite television show). Mostly known for her work in Britain, Pugh energizes, often toeing a fine line between Paige's insecurities and steely determination. This is her journey, and the audience can easily invest in every turn and tumult thanks to such an endearing and honest portrayal.
Fighting With My Family somewhat subverts its own genre. It will work as a date movie, a gathering of the family on the couch movie, or just a group of friends hanging out at the cinema movie. Your enjoyment, or lack thereof, of professional wrestling shouldn't be a factor. You may not walk out of the film any more or less of a fan of wrestling, but you may gain a better understanding and respect for the entertainment value and hard work that go into it. This should be on everyone's must see list for 2019, even if you can't smell what the Rock is cooking.
Steve has been writing moderately well on the Internet for over ten years. As a middle aged fan-boy, he acknowledges that his relevance in today's culture is barely recognized, but he continues to pretend people like him. Maybe you will too. Aficionado of 80's culture and guacamole. Mildly amused by pandas.