From her stunning portrayal of a tricky character in the macabre period drama Lady Macbeth two years ago, I could tell that Florence Pugh was well on her way to Hollywood stardom. What I couldn’t have predicted was that her studio breakout would come from playing a professional wrestler. Fighting With My Family is, in most respects, a standard sports biopic, following the real-life WWE icon Paige (born Saraya-Jade Bevis) from her humble beginnings in Norwich, England, to international fame. But unlike most major sports, pro wrestling is as much about performance as it is about athleticism, a premise that gives Pugh an ample canvas on which to shine.
The problem is, this is a film that tiptoes too close to feeling like an exercise in brand management by a powerful but undeniably flawed organization. The WWE logo flashes onscreen as the action starts; the institution’s biggest star, Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock), not only produced the movie, but also makes an extended cameo as Paige’s motivational guide through wrestling’s garish, sometimes punishing world. As a result, the film struggles to dramatize Paige’s triumph as anything but preordained.
Despite its prominent branding and WWE stewardship, Fighting With My Family was written and directed by Stephen Merchant, who co-created The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais before departing to lead the series Hello Ladies. That show mocked the dating mishaps of Merchant’s gawky character, and the director might seem an odd match for the brawn and bravado of the WWE. But Merchant’s light touch is well suited to the early part of the plot, in which a teenage Saraya gets her first taste of an audience while participating in her family’s local wrestling operation.