In 2013, Dwayne Johnson was in England filming Fast & Furious 6. During a break, he watched a Channel Four documentary in his hotel room and had an idea. The small screen doc was about an oddball English family obsessed with wrestling. It was called The Wrestlers, Fighting with my Family. It told of the Bevis clan of Norwich in the county of Norfolk and their obsession with the sport. British wrestling had left the UK television screens twenty-five years earlier, but this family was keeping localized wrestling alive. Mum and dad ran a promotion out of Norwich called The World Association of Wrestling.
While mum, dad, the brothers and the sister all wrestled, the focus was on the sister, Saraya Bevis, or ‘the princess’ as the documentary called her. Saraya’s wrestling name was Britani, but once her horizons unexpectedly broadened and she was accepted into and signed with the American based World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., (WWE) she became Paige, a name she adopted based on her favorite TV character from Charmed.
Impressed, not to mention amused by the antics of the family, Johnson called Stephen Merchant with whom he’d previously worked in the 2010 family comedy, Tooth Fairy, and asked if the writer/actor/director would consider writing a full-length biopic of Paige. Not only did he write it, he also directed and co-starred.
Fighting with my Family is a biographical sports comedy that is full to the brim with good humor, a few surprisingly tender moments (though never mawkish) and a crowd-pleasing climactic fight of a triumphant underdog whose conflicts were hardly limited to those she fought against in the ring. “I know you,” says a girl when passing Paige (Florence Pugh) in the high street. “You’re from that weird family.”
The film follows the difficult path Paige had to trek once she left Norwich. Both she and her brother Zac (Jack Lowden) went to London to compete in the try-outs for WWE, but only Paige was accepted, a move that crushed her brother’s dreams, causing a serious rift between brother and sister. Vince Vaughn plays Hutch Morgan, the WWE rep and coach who tells those trying out he’s looking for someone not only with the skills to wrestle but also the ‘spark.’ “That’s the magic dust,” he tells them. Evidently, Zac had only the skills. Paige had them both. “See you in Florida,” the rep tells her.
But moving to Florida and training with the others at the demanding WWE boot camp, with Morgan as the no-nonsense commanding officer, proves harder than Paige ever imagined. Plus, with her long black hair, her black eyeliner, her black painted fingernails, a ring through her bottom lip, and her pale, English complexion, with those Goth features she immediately looks out of place among the tanned, blonde, model types that usually attracts the men in the WWE crowds – the gorgeous ladies of wrestling. “They’ve probably been chosen for their looks,” says mum (Lena Headey) during a video call, “Not like you,” then quickly corrects herself, adding that’s not what she meant. “I’m really lonely and I have no friends,” the girl will later tell her brother on a trip back to England.
While the focus is on Paige and the difficulty of finding acceptance with those in America – “I love your accent,” says one of the blondes. “You sound like a Nazi in the movies.” – the film spends ample time back in Norwich with the family.
When dad (Nick Frost), known as Patrick ‘Rowdy Ricky Knight’ Bevis is told to wear a shirt when the parents of Zac’s girlfriend are coming over for a meet-the-parents dinner, he replies, “How bloody posh are they?” Ricky was in prison for eight years, mostly for violent offenses, and often remarks when times are hard that he might have to go back to thieving. Though wrestling and the discipline of his wife have kept him straight, some habits never quite die. When he hears news of Paige’s acceptance in the WWE, he tells a family member, “Go up the corner shop and nick a bottle of champagne.”
Surprisingly, and thankfully, despite the authentic working-class depiction of the clan, their well-worn Norwich home and their often crude, rough-around-the-edges lifestyle habits, Merchant’s smart and funny script omits the more ‘R’ rated expletives, making those colorfully descriptive English colloquialisms all the funnier. When Vince Vaughn’s trainer berates Paige for having a timid wrestler’s name, she lets him know that not all English girls are timid, in the same way that “… Not all Americans are wankers.” And when Lena Heady gets some great news over the phone, her version of ‘tickle me pink’ comes out, “Well, dick me dead and bury me pregnant.”
The film is not shy when it comes to the theatrics of professional wrestling, either. When asked if the sport is all fake, Ricky is quick to explain that it’s not. “It’s fixed,” he states, pointing out that the bruises and broken bones are quite real. Knowing this, you can’t help but question the level of acceptance and how real we’re supposed to believe that the climactic fight ever was. “I’m gonna re-arrange your teeth,” threatens AJ Lee (Zelina Vega) Paige’s opponent in the ring for the WWE Divas Championship in 2014, “But, you’re British, so I’ll be doing you a favor.” But whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, as presented, those Rocky-like moments are still a thrill in this hugely entertaining comedy.
Fighting with My Family is great fun. As for the fast and furious Dwayne Johnson, who is featured with a couple of good cameo scenes of his own as his ring-side alter ego The Rock, when it comes to moves, maybe that call to Stephen Merchant after watching the Channel Four documentary was the best move of all. When he makes a long distance call from America to the Bevis household and tells a disbelieving dad that he’s Dwayne Johnson, before slamming down the phone, dad replies, “Yeah, and I’m Vin Deisel.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 107 Minutes