Reel Talk: ‘Fighting With My Family’

February 22, 2019

Stories from real life provide some of the best material for films, and Stephen Merchant’s newest film as writer and director, “Fighting With My Family,” starring Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is a prime example.

Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and his wife, Julia (Lena Headey), former small-time wrestlers in Norwich, England, dream of their children, Paige (Pugh) and Zak (Lowden), one day becoming WWE champions, an extension of their own lost dreams.

“Fighting With My Family” is a tale of shattered dreams and picking up the pieces as the family grows and learns. Merchant’s comedy is a perfect amalgam of drama and humor as it depicts the Knights’ exceptional yet ordinary lives.

We meet “the kids” when they are younger, shown through video tapes, witnessing the unique parenting style of Julia and Ricky. In most families, siblings physically fighting is discouraged, but not in the Knight family. Their tussles become in-the-ring teaching lessons, and there’s no gender discrimination with this one, either. Paige and Zak are equals, fighting and learning, as we are shocked and entertained by this unique family.

Immediately hilarious, we know we’re in for quite a romp, but what we aren’t prepared for is the depth of heart in this film. This family, as with all families, has their flaws and their missteps, but we also discover their values and love for one another and their community.

The story is Paige’s story to tell as she struggles with her success and insecurities, as well as parental pressure and guilt she harbors about her brother’s failings.

Pugh is an extraordinary young actress, as we saw in “Lady Macbeth” (2016) and “Outlaw King” (2019). This new role is completely unlike her previous ones, but her strength, courage and determination shine just the same. She creates a young girl who must prove herself, not only to the trainers (Vince Vaughn as “Hutch”), her competitors and her parents, but also to herself.

Whether we know anything about the world of wrestling or not, we easily connect with Pugh’s character, her relationships and her struggles.

Johnson doesn’t have a huge role, but his character is larger than life, much like “The Rock” himself. His first scene is indescribably funny as he goes on a rant, spewing nonstop verbal accusations and observations to Paige and Zak. The film slowly morphs into more of a drama, but “The Rock” returns later in the film to show us he, like Pugh, can do anything.

The entire cast is exceptional, and if you stay for the end credits (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll find Headey and Frost embody the real-life parents and Lowden finds a way to exhibit the roller coaster of emotions the real Zak experienced.

Merchant’s penchant for creating lovable yet realistically flawed characters gives the film the heart and the narrative arc it requires to succeed. With his stellar cast, he is able to create a story that, with a meaningful message, will have you laughing and crying as you connect with every character. And that’s not even mentioning showcasing the athleticism and strength that is involved in this entertaining sport.

These stunts are jaw-dropping and eye-popping. As Merchant told me in a recent interview, it’s like “...soap opera in spandex.” Nothing could be a better descriptor than that.

“Fighting With My Family” is an example that Hollywood can and does produce winners in February. This is a film that is perfectly balanced with humor, drama and heart while it punctuates how a family deals with life’s ups and downs — and picking up the pieces of shattered dreams.

As Merchant said, “...it’s a sort of celebration, of not failure, but how you pick yourself up when your dreams don’t play out the way you want.”

4 stars