There’s little fresh to the idea of the Rocky story, of a sporting underdog attempting to triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. Depending on which Rocky sequel you happen to be watching at the time, they sometimes succeed too.
What’s not been done to date is the tale of a family of wrestling fanatics from Norwich, from which a teenage girl attempts to scale the heights of WWE wrestling in the US. And, as with many unlikely stories of its ilk that make it to the big screen, this particular story is based on a true story.
In Fighting With My Family, then, the terrific Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden take on the roles of the pair at the heart of the story, sister and brother Saraya ‘Paige’ and Zak ‘Zodiac’ who share a dream of being professional WWE wrestlers. They’re egged on and supported by their parents – played by Lena Headey and Nick Frost – as they look to fulfil their dreams in America.
It’s a sibling story at the heart of the tale, with life having different things in store for each of them. And as has been pointed out by the film’s writer and director – The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant – there’s quite a dark, down-to-earth gritty British drama that could be made out of the ensuing narrative. It’s not too tricky to see that.
Yet for Merchant, helming his second feature following the underappreciated coming-of-age drama Cemetery Junction (made back in 2010 alongside Ricky Gervais), a dark, gritty film is clearly the last thing he wanted to make.
Instead, backed by the not-inconsiderable physical and business heft of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Merchant is far more interested in making a funny, broad, accessible version of the brother and sister’s story, with genuine family appeal.
A dark, gritty film is clearly the last thing Merchant wanted to make
And that’s exactly what he does. What’s more, thanks to the backing of Johnson – who brought the idea of making the film to Merchant in the first place – he doesn’t have to skimp in doing so. On the one hand, then, you get the Norwich side of the story, shot in and around the area. On the other, you get an official WWE event, filmed in America, and a very funny cameo from the film’s superstar producer.
Which all gives the film something to aim for in its final act, certainly. But what’s impressive is how much heart it boasts on the way there.
Merchant’s witty film takes a few minutes to find its feet, and you’ll quickly work out the formula it’s following. Yet by injecting a familiar path with characters to really root for (in spite of their not always easy past misdemeanours), you can’t help but get sucked into it, wrestling fan or not.
Granted, if you are a wrestling devotee, you’re going to have to sit through some necessary explanations for everyone else as to just what’s going on. Yet it’s the price of aiming – successfully – for such a crowd-pleasing slice of fun in the first place. A price well, well worth paying.
Fighting With My Family is in cinemas from March 1