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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Fighting With My Family



"My sister just became the first 18-year-old English girl ever signed by the WWE!" Zak Bevis (Jack Lowden) proudly announces to his family and friends as they cheer on their chosen daughter Saraya-Jade Bevis (Florence Pugh). Of course, Saraya would go on to worldwide fame (and also heartbreak) as WWE Champion, reality TV star, and global superstar Paige. But on this night in 2011, Paige was just a teenager from Norwich, England about to take her first steps into the larger world of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). It won't be easy. This is both Paige's story and also, perhaps even more touching, the story of her older brother Zak, the one who got left behind.

Stephen Merchant's witty, insightful, and engaging Fighting With My Family, based upon the true story and the British documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, is about Saraya's journey and struggles on the road to WWE stardom but it's also about her unusual family of pro-wrestlers. Her father "Rowdy" Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and mother "Sweet" Saraya (Lena Headey) fell in love with each other and with pro-wrestling; they are the owner/promoters of World Association Wrestling (WAW) based in Norwich. Her half-brother Roy (James Burrows) was incarcerated after he lashed out when WWE rejected him and her older brother Zak Zodiac dreams of WWE stardom himself. However, Saraya was gifted in ways the rest of the family are not: raven-haired, porcelain-skinned, wildly charismatic, and a natural in the ring, she was the spark of the family and everyone knew it.

Pugh plays Saraya as a bit more of a misfit outsider who may not want the WWE dream as much as Zak, but only Saraya gets picked at a WWE tryout by Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). WWE's talent scout and trainer, Morgan is an amalgam of several of the real Paige's mentors, including the late legend Dusty Rhodes. In 2011, Saraya ships off to sun-kissed and glamorous (compared to Norwich) Orlando, Florida where she trains at NXT, WWE's developmental arm. As literally a lifelong pro wrestler who comes from a wrestling family, Saraya rankles the other female hopefuls, a collection of swimsuit catalog models who are trying to become WWE Divas for the fame and fortune. (The Divas hopefuls' wrestling gear are inspired by those worn by former WWE Divas Eve Torres and Summer Rae and the original NXT cheerleader costume of Alexa Bliss.) In a neat twist, it's Saraya who ends up bullying the girls and alienating them; she had to find a way to become a WWE Diva herself (which included a very poor decision to briefly dye her hair platinum blonde and give herself a spray tan).

Today, WWE is in the midst of a Women's Revolution led by Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Charlotte Flair where the women put on epic matches and are main eventing per-per-views, but Saraya landed in WWE during the years when the company was still promoting their Divas brand and training models to become wrestlers mainly to provide sex appeal for their shows. Merchant and Pugh also present a Saraya who's "weak in body and mind", according to Hutch, who tells her WWE shouldn't have picked her and she should go back home and be with her family. Merchant excises and simplifies many aspects of Paige's NXT career. In real life, Paige (billed as "The Anti-Diva") had wrestled in the all-female SHIMMER promotion alongside her mother and she was, in fact, a polished performer who naturally possesses a unique sex appeal. She was a wildly popular NXT Women's Champion and an obvious star destined to go to the WWE main roster. But Pugh's version of Paige (who named herself after the Rose McGowan character in Charmed), is even more of an outlier, lonelier, and far more unsure of herself. The film offers glimpses of the secret self-doubt WWE fans never saw from Paige in the ring.

Meanwhile, back in Norwich, Zak's story is a fascinating one: as the male star of the family, he not only main events the WAW shows (often held in front of a couple of dozen paying fans) but he also runs a school where he trains at-risk teenagers to become wrestlers. Zak even trains a blind teenage boy and develops a system to turn him into a wrestler. Saddled with a girlfriend and a newborn baby, Zak spirals out of control and is understandably furious when his sister looks like she's ready to throw away the dream that was denied him. As compelling as Pugh is portraying Paige's struggles at NXT, Lowden's Zak provides the most heart-wrenching moments as he is forced to reconcile that he lacks the "IT factor" his sister has and that his reality will not change. Meanwhile, Ricky and Sweet Saraya are amusingly opportunists looking to cash in on their baby daughter's status as a WWE Superstar. 

Finally, Paige rededicates herself to NXT and becomes the performer she was meant to be, along with befriending and leading her fellow Diva hopefuls to become better wrestlers themselves. Her efforts don't go unnoticed by Hutch or her guardian angel, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (who cameos as himself and, as a producer, spearheaded this movie getting made after seeing the documentary about the Knight family). At 2014's WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans, The Rock breaks the news to Paige personally: she's getting called up to Monday Night RAW and debuting against WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee (Thea Trinidad, doing a spot-on impersonation of the real April "AJ Lee" Mendez). There are also cameos by WWE's The Miz, Big Show, Sheamus, and John Cena.

Millions of WWE fans know how this story goes: Paige defeats AJ in an impromptu match and wins the WWE Divas Championship, lighting the fuse on the Women's Revolution that would follow. It's a feel-good ending to this Rocky story of a young girl from Norwich who made it to the pinnacle of WWE. Fighting With My Family is a solid wrestling movie about WWE (that shockingly features no McMahons or Triple H, the guiding force of NXT!) and an even better comedy-drama about a family unlike any other. Most importantly, Fighting With My Family does right by Paige, her motley clan, and the WWE fans. The film shows what it really does take to be a WWE Superstar: talent, drive, and that extra spark to turn any arena into "my house" - something Paige has in spades.