Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for the WWE. But Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep – and prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star.
Saraya-Jade Bevis – Paige, to her fans – is now hailed as one of the world’s most famous WWE champions. Back in 2011, though, she was just plain old Raya Knight (Florence Pugh), a teenage misfit who spent her days hanging out with her fellow “freaks”, and her nights fighting with her family.
And, naturally, this is the Raya which the whip-smart and laugh-out-loud funny Fighting With My Family (directed by Stephen Merchant, produced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) focuses on.
From the very beginning of this movie, one thing is made abundantly clear: all of the Knights are outsiders. Raya’s mum Julia (Lena Headey) grew up on the streets, her brother Zak (Dunkirk standout Jack Lowden) moonlights as ‘The Zodiac’, her dad Ricky (Nick Frost) has spent time in prison for “mostly violence”, and her half-sibling Roy (James Burrows) is still in prison – again, for “mostly violence”.
On paper, they sound like the sort of people you’d do your best to avoid if you crossed their path on the streets of Norwich. But, through setting up their very own World Association of Wrestling (WAW), this close-knit family of British brawlers has found purpose – or rather, as a misty-eyed Julia and Ricky tell us repeatedly, they have found “salvation”. Together, they run a training school and teach at-risk teens how to wrestle (and, somewhat amazingly, Fighting With My Family’s portrayal of Zak teaching a blind teenager to wrestle is true; the real Zak did impressively develop a system to teach a blind boy how to move in the ring and to wrestle by using sound and touch).
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Naturally, it is Zak who is seen as the family’s champion. In his hometown, he is the wrestler that the locals pay to see – and it is he who puts Raya through her paces in the ring. But, when the siblings are offered an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for WWE, it is Raya, not Zak, who catches the eye of talent scout Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). And so the tight-knit family comes unravelled as Raya heads off to face the cutthroat world of professional wrestling alone, while a shattered Zak wrestles with the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in his baby sister’s shadow.
This, of course, is where things get really interesting. Raya – a goth with a thick Norwich accent – feels completely out of her depth alongside her tanned blonde American ‘girl next door’ counterparts. She sits by herself at lunch, spends every single night alone in her bedroom, and fights back tears every time she sees the other women whispering together behind her back. But, just as soon as we think we’ve got these bullies sussed, the film deftly pulls the rug out from under our feet and skewers that classic Mean Girls trope of beautiful women instinctively hating on other women. Which means that we, just like the on-screen Raya, are forced to confront our own prejudices about these ‘bitchy wannabe models’.
There is, after all, more than one way to judge a book by its cover. And, more pertinently, there is more than one way to be a bully.
Of course, there’s no denying that Fighting With My Family is an origin story. But, while even the most casual of WWE fans will know the broad strokes of Raya’s career, the film’s pacey script and stellar cast are more than enough to keep clichés at bay.
And then, of course, there’s those brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, all of which will have you clinging to the armrests of your cinema seat. Merchant actually sent Pugh and Lowden to train as wrestlers at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, to keep things looking as realistic as possible. As such, the actors perform most of their own stunts: however, it’s worth noting that Tessa Blanchard, a pro-wrestler and the daughter of wrestling legend Tully Blanchard, was the stuntwoman who performed Paige’s more challenging wrestling moves.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, as you may have guessed from the posters, doesn’t just produce Fighting With My Family: he plays himself in it, too. Since he also comes from a family of pro-wrestlers, Johnson took a special interest in Raya and would check up on her from time to time after she signed with WWE, which goes some way towards explaining that hilarious scene in which Zak and Saraya meet The Rock backstage before their tryout.
Johnson’s role in the film, though, is fleeting. Because, in Fighting With My Family, it is Pugh who is the true star. This exciting young actress has all the raw charisma, strength and energy of the real-life Paige, but expertly employs all of her skills to exposes the vulnerable young woman behind the gloss.
She is, to quote the Knight family, “d*ck me dead, bury me pregnant” brilliant – and her performance will inspire any woman watching to throw caution to the wind and follow her dreams, however impossible they may seem.
Images: Robert Viglasky / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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