Early in this entertaining biopic about an English wrestling clan, Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) encounters a couple of girls her age who turn up their noses at her passion. Pro wrestling? they wonder aloud. What sort of halfway intelligent person enjoys that?
The very existence of this movie — financed by World Wrestling Entertainment — makes that scene seem passé. In the past decade, Oscar-nominated The Wrestler, Netflix's "GLOW" and the thriving movie career of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson have established pro wrestling as a bruising branch of show business enjoyed by highbrows and lowbrows alike. Because it's as much about showmanship as athletics, wrestling makes a perfect movie subject, combining the visual excitement of sports with the soul-baring melodrama of a show-biz tale.
At its heart, Fighting With My Family is a Cinderella story in which a fairy godmother called WWE plucks a working-class goth girl from Norwich, England, and turns her into an international star. But writer-director Stephen Merchant (cocreator of "The Office") gives the potentially shopworn material a heartfelt zest by making the story as gritty and funny as it is inspirational. And Pugh, who enthralled with her turn in the period drama Lady Macbeth, brings the same take-no-prisoners attitude to the role of a wrestler based on now-26-year-old WWE star Paige.
The emotional core of the story comes from a 2012 UK TV doc called The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, which portrays Saraya's family as carrying on a tradition of British wrestling in humble circumstances. Her parents, a former addict and an ex-con (Lena Headey and Nick Frost), make their living from a small-time wrestling outfit that helps keep teens off the streets. Their older son crashed and burned at his big shot at the WWE, so a lot is riding on Saraya and her brother, Zak (Jack Lowden).
When Saraya is chosen for the WWE's Florida training program and Zak isn't, a rift opens. The narrative splits to follow both siblings as Zak drifts into self-destructive behavior. Meanwhile, Saraya, alone in a foreign country, struggles with a brutal regimen, competition from Barbie-perfect rivals and the tough-love ministrations of her coach (a pleasantly sardonic Vince Vaughn).
Compelling as it is, this underdog story isn't exactly suspenseful. At her WWE tryout, Saraya ran into the Rock (played by himself), who lectured her on how wrestling is about being yourself, so we know how she'll eventually meet the challenge of winning over American crowds. More interesting, but less developed on-screen, is her frustration with sparring partners who came from modeling or cheerleading and lack her years of wrestling experience.
The TV doc is frank about the role of physical attractiveness in the WWE: Zak needs better abs to make the cut, and Saraya discusses the importance of "T and A." Fighting With My Family leaves those issues largely implied, despite a scene in which Paige is heckled by spectators who came to see "hot chicks." An end title describes her as a pioneer for women in wrestling, but the movie doesn't explain exactly what she pioneered or why.
Rather than a deep dive into wrestling culture, Fighting is an inspirational drama painting the WWE as an American institution that makes dreams come true — even for pasty little girls from England. Yet the movie is so fast on its feet, feisty and foul-mouthed that it's impossible to dislike, much like its subjects. By the end, it convinces us that the family that scraps together stays together.