The 2019 film “Fighting With My Family,” though not life-changing, is a nice change of pace from the movies where doing one’s own thing is depicted as the heroic, authentic thing. It is pleasantly anti-modern in its conception of family and work, as the family’s good is portrayed as more important than self-doubts about “what I want to do.”
The modern dramatic story of growing up is too often built upon rejection. Heroic young people get beyond their blinkered old parents and community and do what I want to do. It’s not a completely false story when it comes to the work that provides for daily bread. Just because dad was the great fisherman or mom was a great lawyer doesn’t mean I’m going to be any good at such things nor that I should do them. A responsible use of freedom sometimes means going a different direction when it comes to the family business.
But a culture that celebrates “doing it my way” as the almost necessary career ideal is probably missing something, too. Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life is wonderful in itself as a pushback against the narrative of the heroic individual doing what he or she wants to do. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is a man who, because of duty, forsakes his dreams of architecture and building buildings in the big cities of the world to stay behind in his little town and run a “measly little Savings and Loan” begun by his father and uncle. The thrust of the film is that though his brother and his classmates had gone off to follow their individual dreams, George’s was really the life that made a difference to an entire town. The emotional power of the film comes from its full acknowledgment that such a life of nickels and dimes in a small pond has its difficulties—not least the realization that others have it easier financially.
Fighting With My Family, a 2019 film based on the true story of professional wrestling superstar Saraya-Jade Bevis (known by her nom-de-ring, Paige) as told in a 2014 documentary of almost the same name, is not a Frank Capra production. While not the most foul-mouthed movie one could pick, it’s got quite a bit of innuendo and penis jokes in it and is thus not fit for younger children. Thematically, however, Stephen Merchant’s writing and direction is pleasantly anti-modern in its conception of family and work.
Starring Florence Pugh as Saraya-Jade, Nick Frost as Patrick “Rowdy Ricky” Bevis, Lena Headey as her mother Julia “Sweet Saraya” Bevis, Jack Lowden as her brother Zak “Zodiak” Bevis, and Vince Vaughn as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) trainer and recruiter Hutch Morgan (a fictional figure based on a composite of real people), the film deals with Paige’s jump from the world of small-time wrestling in England and Europe to the superstardom of the WWE in 2014.
Mr. Merchant’s film takes liberties with the facts and follows a common sports movie formula, presenting as its climax Paige’s triumphal entry into the WWE with an immediate claim on the women’s “Diva” title. The real wrestler got her start in this form of showbiz by building up a popular following such that the scriptwriters at WWE would put her on top. The nature of wrestling comes up in one piece of dialogue in which wrestling is called “fake.” Rowdy Ricky replies, “It’s not fake. It’s fixed.” He then enumerates some of his injuries in the ring. The moves are very real even if they are choreographed theater, and professional wrestling is quite a dangerous sport, as depicted in the much darker 2008 film The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. We get a taste of that in this movie humorously when Rowdy Ricky asks one of his wrestling troupe if he’d be willing to take a bowling ball to the groin and then demonstrates on the wrestler. We get it more darkly when Zak agrees to be thrown on his back on a pile of tacks and we see him afterward tending to the very not-fake puncture wounds on his back. Indeed, Paige retired from the ring due to her own injuries in 2018.
Ricky and Julia Bevis’s marriage and career in wrestling began in the early 1990s. In a scene from the film, the couple tell their son’s pregnant girlfriend’s parents to their horror that they met after Ricky got out of prison—“mostly for violence.” Their two children got into the family business and they helped their parents establish the World Association of Wrestling in their hometown of Norwich, England, putting on matches and teaching young would-be wrestlers. The story begins with a brief view of the family at the time when “Britani Knight” (Saraya-Jade’s original wrestling name) and Zak began in the ring. The hope of the parents is that Zak and Saraya-Jade will continue the family tradition (an older brother is in prison—mostly for violence) and, if possible, make it to the big-time in the U.S.A. visiting show in London by the WWE provides the opportunity for a try-out for the siblings. Zak, the older of the two, is depicted as having had the dream for as long as he has lived, while his sister is shown as the greater talent but more interested in the job as a means of working with her family.
When she is chosen to go to the WWE development camp instead of her brother, the problems begin. Zak begins to go off the rails due to his disappointment while Paige seems lost in the Florida training facility without her family. When she comes home to England for a visit, she decides she will not go back and maybe drop wrestling despite family pressure to stick with it for them. She wants out, but the film bucks the my-way formula: Saraya-Jade sticks with the family business.
Of course this isn’t quite like It’s a Wonderful Life either. Doing the family’s bidding in this case means sticking it out in the big leagues of athletic show business for potentially big payouts and stardom rather than staying in sleepy Bedford Falls, New York, to help blue-collar workers get homes. But it is still a nice change of pace from the movies where doing one’s own thing is depicted as the heroic, authentic thing—and the only real path to glory. A key scene in the movie comes when her father sits down on her bed with Saraya-Jade and tells her that she can do what she wants. Nick Frost manages the scene fairly well despite the fact that he always seems to be acting a kind of winking parody (useful in his collaborations with Simon Pegg such as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). It’s a great scene, full of obligatory parental acceptance. More delightful is that Saraya-Jade forsakes doing her own thing and keeps at it for her family, whose wrestling company is now thriving due to their connection to a WWE up-and-comer. The family’s good is portrayed as more important than self-doubts about what I want to do. And Zak, who has been passed over for the shot at the big time, gets to play the role of George Bailey, discovering that his teaching various youth with problems (one would be dealing drugs if it weren’t for wrestling; another is blind) has its own rewards.
Fighting With My Family is not a life-changing movie nor does it stray too far from the underdog/small-pond-fish-thrown-into-larger-pond. It is a popcorn flick appropriate for times when “film” is just too much. It’s great for when you want to watch something amusing with a big heart and an emphasis on family instead of the heroic, imperial, family-rejecting self.
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The featured image is courtesy of IMDb.