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Fighting with My Family: British authenticity collides with American vulgarity

The Stephen Merchant-WWE dramatisation of a young wrestler’s life is timid and conventional.

Fighting with My Family is a strange beast: a marriage of noted cringe-comedy writer and actor Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) and wrestling entertainment mega-corp WWE Films, responsible for such treats as The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown! and The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania! Mercifully, we’re spared the sight of Ricky Gervais in gold hotpants.

Instead, it retells the life story of Saraya-Jade Bevis, “a weird freak from Norwich” born into a rough-and-ready working-class clan of wrestling fanatics. Using the stage name Paige, 18-year-old Saraya (played here by Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth fame) crossed the Atlantic and ascended to the heights of the “sport” as the youngest-ever World Wrestling Entertainment “divas champion”.

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The Merchant-WWE pairing starts to make more sense. A culture clash: British authenticity collides with American vulgarity. At a Florida training camp, Saraya, a pale Goth with piercings and dyed black hair, meets the bronzed and enhanced women she’s trialling against. They marvel at her Norfolk accent: “You sound like a Nazi in a movie!”

But the film is not as funny as it might first appear. Nor is it a revealing behind-the-spandex exposé of wrestling’s camp follies. Rather, it’s a fairly typical underdog story of triumph over adversity, one woman against the world, and other assorted clichés. Set in a world that is overblown and sensational, Fighting with My Family is tidy, timid and conventional, throwing mimed punches of mock-realism and taking dives for convention whenever possible.

In fact, Merchant is so dedicated to reaffirming the allure and mythos of professional wrestling as genuinely competitive that a major problem goes unaddressed: if the spectacle is “fixed, not fake”, as Saraya’s father (Nick Frost) says, and her rise through the ranks is necessarily scripted, what has she actually earned?

By contrast, the 2012 Channel 4 TV documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, from which Merchant has borrowed liberally, did a better job of showing the disparity. In that doco (available free online), the mould on the ceiling of the family’s council flat is visible. America’s spotlit arenas really do seem a long way from Norwich.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

Video: Zero Media

This article was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.