Is there anything Florence Pugh can’t do? It may be a premature thing to ask of a 23-year-old actress just a few roles into a remarkable career, but I remember thinking it after seeing her in the quietly seething independent drama ‘Lady Macbeth’. The notion of an English performer excelling in a period role may strike you as unremarkable, but Pugh didn’t just rock a corset and hoop skirt; she lured you into chilly complicity with a 19th-century schemer desperately hurling herself against the iron cage of her marriage.
In the generous, big-hearted new comedy ‘Fighting With My Family’, Pugh hurls herself against a lot of other things: the ropes of a wrestling ring, various male and female opponents, the opportunity of a lifetime. She does this while sporting a lip ring, jet-black hair and other goth-girl accoutrements — all of which she wisely uses to tease out rather than sum up her real-life character, Saraya Jade-Bevis, a retired World Wrestling Entertainment personality known to her adoring fans as Paige.
Before she earned her lucrative contract and became the youngest winner of the WWE’s all-female Divas Championship at 21, Paige hailed from a wrestling-obsessed family in Norwich, England. Their story, already covered in a 2012 documentary, feels unusually hand-tailored to mainstream comedy specifications. That’s partly because of the rowdy, rough-and-tumble setting and a willingness to both mock and appreciate the tricks of a physically demanding sport where nearly every blow, jab and stunt is fixed (don’t you dare call it “fake,” as one character defensively notes).
The affection may be calculated — ‘Fighting With My Family’ is a WWE Studios production and boasts Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in an amusing extended cameo — but it is also quite sincere. Certainly there are duller athletic spectacles than one in which two fighters try to pulverise each other in carefully choreographed showdowns, sustained by not only their physical stamina but also the intensity of the crowd’s adoration.
I suspect the audience for this movie will respond with a similar surge of affection. Within the context of a sport that thrives on artifice, writer-director Stephen Merchant spins a story whose emotions feel entirely genuine.
It helps that there are actors on hand like Lena Headey and Nick Frost, who immediately generate a warm, wacky rapport as Julia and Ricky Knight, a boisterously affectionate mom-and-pop duo who have turned professional wrestling into a not-so-lucrative family business. Their eldest child is in prison, but the other two, Zak (Jack Lowden) and Paige (Pugh), are eager participants at the Knights’ Norwich gym and training school, teaching local kids how to wrestle by day and slugging it out in the ring by night.
Both Zak and Paige harbour dreams of WWE stardom, and both get their shot when they’re invited to audition under the unforgiving eye of a cynical, seen-it-all coach named Hutch (a sharp Vince Vaughn). As Hutch tells his new recruits, it will take more than just incredible strength, outlandish costumes, a catchy persona and a compelling narrative to succeed: Indeed, only Paige is found to possess that elusive X factor needed to advance to the next round.
And so she heads off to the mother of all Florida boot camps, where she faces a gruelling workout regimen, crippling self-doubt and some harsh jabs about her appearance and personality both in and out of the ring. Pugh piles layer upon emotional layer, every one of them convincing. The outward toughness cracks open to reveal an inner vulnerability, which in turn conceals a still deeper mystery: Who is she, exactly? How can she project an authentic version of herself in a sport that demands a measure of performative rage?
While Paige is working all that out, the quietly crushed Zak returns to Norwich and tries to carry on with his life. Lowden, a standout in ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Mary Queen of Scots’, has a lovable hangdog vibe that curdles all too believably into rage, as Zak gradually comes to terms with the loss of the only dream he’s ever known. Needless to say, his little sister’s success doesn’t make his rejection any less crushing.
The subsequent impact on Zak and Paige’s relationship is observed with painful honesty and a clear-eyed grasp of the brutal politics of the sport. For all its head-bashing stunts and groin-centric humour, ‘Fighting With My Family’ strikes its emotional beats with a surprisingly delicate touch. Merchant, a writer, director and actor who honed his funnyman chops with Ricky Gervais on ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’, has a deft way with tonal misdirection; he keeps the laughs and the tears in separate corners before gradually bringing them into collision.
The WWE championship climax comes as no surprise, and neither do the lessons that Paige must absorb along the way, most of them having to do with authenticity and self-realisation. She will learn not to misjudge the not-so-vapid fitness models she finds herself training with, and also to trust her own instincts about who she is and what she’s selling. By the end, she’s learnt not to pretend to be someone she isn’t. Happily, Florence Pugh appears to have learnt exactly the opposite.
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‘Fighting With My Family’ releases in the UAE on February 21.