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Front Page - Friday, March 1, 2019

Critic's Corner: Go for the wrestling, stay for the touching, funny family drama

I knew “Fighting with My Family” was going to be something special when the father walked in on his 10-year-old son choking his younger sister and rectified the situation by correcting his son’s technique.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing? If you really want to choke her out, then lock your fingers,” he says, helping his son make the necessary adjustments. “Now pull it tight.”

“Fighting with My Family” is a biographical sports film depicting the rise of the girl in that scene, Saraya Bevis, to professional wrestling fame as a WWE champion. You might balk at the idea of seeing a wrestling movie (I did), but if you pass on the film you’re going to miss a charming, funny and entertaining drama.

I should clarify what I mean by “charming.” In another early scene, the mother is trying to convince a now teenage Saraya to wrestle her brother in a live match. When Saraya is hesitant, her mother urges her on, saying live wrestling is like “coke, crack and heroin combined.”

“Have you done coke, crack or heroin?” Saraya asks her mother.

“Not combined!”

In all likelihood, Saraya’s family does not look, talk or act like your family. But they’re sweet all the same because of how deeply they love and care for each other.

That bond is challenged when Saraya and her brother, Zak, are given a shot at trying out for the WWE, but only Saraya makes it. As she trains and rises through the ranks of the organization on her way to “Monday Night Raw,” Zak withdraws from his family and life in general and sinks into depression and alcoholism.

“Fighting with My Family” is one of those movies that hit nearly every note perfectly. I’ve already touched on the writing, which is not only witty but also focused. Writer and director Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the British version of “The Office”) never loses sight of where each character is headed, whether it’s Saraya overcoming the physical and emotional obstacles that stand between her and her dream, or Zak working through his disappointment and realizing he’s doing a hero’s work at home as he teaches disadvantaged kids to wrestle.

The film’s themes are simple, and the characters are subject to spouting platitudes like, “Don’t worry about being the next me, be the first you,” but Merchant understands Saraya and her family well and he did beautiful work in bringing them to life and stirring love for them in the hearts of viewers.

Much credit for how well these real-life people are portrayed goes to the actors. Nick Frost is a gas as the father and former convict, who was imprisoned for “mostly violence.” Frost is no comic relief, though, as he’s also capable of providing the emotional anchor in a scene.

The movie’s heart beats within the chest of Florence Pugh, who portrays Saraya. Not only does she have that indefinable thing musicians call “soul,” she delivered on every level, whether a scene called for her to be a ballsy, trash-talking wrestler; an agile, powerful force in the ring, or a young woman experiencing doubt and panic on the most meaningful journey of her life. It’s not the kind of performance that wins awards, but it’s precisely the performance “Fighting with My Family” needed from her.

Although Jack Andrew Lowden is not front and center as Zak, he does some heavy lifting of his own. Merchant gave him a different emotional palette to work with than Pugh – as Saraya wrestles with fear and uncertainty, Zak struggles with anger and bitterness – but he paints the screen with equally vibrant colors.

Dwayne Johnson appears as himself and does his best film work since 2003’s “The Rundown.” I thought the movie would suffer from his recent overexposure, but not only is he a fun presence, his scenes have real weight.

I’m so smitten with “Wrestling with My Family,” I even liked Vince Vaughn as wrestling coach Hutch Morgan. This surprised me because I don’t like Vaughn in much. He still seems to be winging his lines (or stumbling through them), and Merchant includes too many shots of him looking pensively at Saraya as she wrestles, but he has several standout moments and is a memorable addition to a stellar group of actors.

Is there anything about “Fighting with My Family” I didn’t like? It took me several minutes to start understanding the British accents (Saraya’s family is from Norwich, England), so I was a bit lost in the beginning, and the film ends with a hackneyed “Rocky”-style finale that tries too hard to pump up the audience.

What happens in the ring happened in real life, but Merchant approaches the scene as if it’s an actual match after spending 90 minutes depicting WWE wrestling as well-rehearsed entertainment. Thankfully, this is the film’s only sour note.

I wasn’t eager to see “Fighting with My Family” because I have no interest in wrestling. But while Merchant does take a close look at the sport, it’s just window dressing for something I do like – heartfelt dramas that offer a glimpse at the human experience. I might not remember what a piledriver is, but I’ll never forget seeing this wonderful film.