When WWE superstar Paige had to announce her retirement from professional wrestling due to injury, I was heartbroken. Always one of my favorite women on the roster, Paige brought an independent spirit and anti-authority attitude that was genuine and not like cartoonish (but charismatic) superstars such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Plus she was a beast in the ring and on the mic. I think it’s safe to say that crowd-pleasing piledriver of a biopic Fighting With My Family has been high on my radar for a long time, for multiple reasons. Not only is it about one of my all-time favorite women in the WWE, but the film marks a turning of the page (no pun intended) by using wrestling to tell a familiar sports underdog story that is sure to win over audiences.
I was concerned about the casting of Florence Pugh as Paige, real-name Soraya-Jade Bevis. Not because she’s an incapable actress; she’s actually quite good, it’s just that Paige is such a unique personality, rough around the edges but vulnerable and sweet. Her smile lights up the room, but she’s totally credible kicking ass in the squared circle. The film isn’t just about her, though. It’s about her family, who are all professional wrestlers, and what it’s like to grow up surrounded by that lifestyle.
For Paige growing up in Norwich, England the times were always rough. Her parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey) are both wrestlers, running a shabby little organization out of a raggedy old gym. Paige didn’t always want to get in the family trade, but after filling in on a match against her brother, Zak Zodiac (Jack Lowden, a breakout here), she’s hooked for life. And she shows natural skills right off the bat, performing hurricanranas and taking bumps like a pro. When the WWE finally calls and invites the kids for an official tryout, it’s like the culmination of everything the family has been working towards.
“You’re doing this for the family”, Paige’s father “Rowdy Rick Knight often says. It’s a lot of pressure heaped on Paige and Zak. Vince Vaughn plays WWE trainer Hutch Morgan, who puts them through the rigors at the Performance Center. Fans of sports entertainment will get a thrill going inside the intense training regiment at WWE developmental, known as the popular brand NXT. But when Paige gets signed to a contract and Zak is turned away, it throws into doubt whether she truly wants this for herself.
Paige was more than just another WWE superstar. Her rise up from the ranks is one of the great stories in wrestling. At the time, women superstars were known, rather glibly, as “divas”. WWE was in a phase of signing non-professionals with backgrounds in cheerleading, modeling, and dancing, who could titillate the mostly-male audience. Paige was unconventionally attractive and she knew her shit in the ring. But most of all, she refused to compromise who she was just to fit in. The movie depicts this in broad strokes, as Paige deals with a trio of mean girls at the facility who want to see her fail.
In a scene where one of Paige’s rivals kicks and elbows her for real in the ring, Paige gives her what is known in the business as a “receipt”. She punches the girl in the face, only to be reprimanded by Hutch. Situations like this keep occurring, and forced to deal with it alone, Paige has to face the reality that maybe she’s not cut out for the WWE, at least not by herself.
It was smart of Merchant to also spend time away from Paige and focus on her family, in particular Zak who is struggling with the loss of his greatest dream. While she’s on the verge of becoming a wrestling superstar, Zak just can’t make sense of it all. One of the many themes Merchant imparts is wrestling’s ability to unite communities and changes lives. Zak may not be in the WWE but he and his parents are wrestlers, and they use wrestling as their means of giving back to others. It’s good to see a film that treats professional wrestling with the same respect as football or any other major sport.
Paige’s story mirrors that of Johnson’s in a lot of ways, which is one reason why he boarded the film as a producer. He also, finally (And the Rock says FINALLY!!!) gets to play himself, giving a rousing “jabronie eating pie eating” promo that blows away the starstruck Paige and Zak. Johnson’s appearances are few, but his presence is more than just a boost in star power. Johnson is the pinnacle of what a WWE superstar can be, and coming from an upbringing much as Paige did, it shows the potential for what she could be.
Naturally, WWE is presented as the pinnacle of sports entertainment. I get it; for most fans growing up that’s the case, but the movie comes out at a time when there have never been more options. WWE isn’t the final destination anymore, and plenty of amazing superstars have emerged who have never and may never set foot on a Vince McMahon broadcast. Also, some of the changes made to Paige’s story will irk fans who know what she’s been through. Merchant’s script breezes through her time at NXT, where she was one of their greatest women’s champions. We don’t see that run at all. Instead, she goes straight from training and onto the her first big match on Monday Night Raw and her legendary debut against champion AJ Lee (played by current WWE star Zelina Vega). Skipping so much of what she went through does flatten Paige’s story a little bit, because it’s in NXT where her screen persona was crafted. By the time she appeared on Raw, fans knew her and were ready to love her on the big stage. It’s also a little weird how the final match is portrayed like an actual fight and not one predetermined in a script writer’s office somewhere. I get it; the actual in-ring athleticism is legit and a big part of wrestling is suspension of disbelief, but to a layman it won’t make much sense.
Appearances by Big Show, Miz, and Sheamus will perk up WWE disciples, but I was glad they didn’t overload the film with cameos. Instead, the most colorful personalities all belong to Paige and her family. The matches themselves may be scripted, but the people are real and so are their hopes and dreams. Fighting With My Family may take a familiar path to championship gold, but it still lays the smackdown on you emotionally, whether you’re a fan or not.