If you’ve ever seen British WWE wrestler Paige spar in the ring, you’re likely to fear her—she’s a snarling wildcat dressed in black-leather metalhead attire and wrapped in a Goth mystique. If you don’t fear the two-time Divas Champion—the youngest ever to hold the title in WWE history, in fact—her formidable submission holds such as “the Paige Turner” would at least leave you pretty impressed.
Now retired, Paige is credited for positively influencing the image of women wrestlers in the WWE as venerable athletes and competitors (whither Chyna, though?). She’s seen as the “Anti-Diva,” the first woman wrestler to challenge the common trope of former cheerleaders and models who become bouncy, buxom eye candy. She’s so charismatic to watch she joined the E! reality show Total Divas in 2014 to allow people to see her irreverent personality and wild side in a more intimate setting.
Paige—whose real name is Saraya-Jade Bevis—is the subject of writer/director Stephen Merchant’s biopic Fighting With My Family. Based on an earlier documentary of the same name that revolves around Bevis and her family of professional wrestlers, this film is a semi-fictionalized portrayal of her beginnings as a wrestler, from a 13-year-old tag teaming with her parents and brother to her auditioning for the WWE and subsequent rise to fame via her talent and prowess.
With Merchant at the helm, Fighting With My Family takes the piss out of the normal biopic and mines brash humor from Paige’s story for an enjoyable film fit for wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike. There’s also a feel-good, heartwarming message about the bond among family, as well as an underdog tale of a young female who uses wrestling as an escape from reality and finds her purpose, success and niche, while in the rest of the world, her Gothic otherness makes her a freak.
It’s a winning combination of elements, and Merchant and the cast make it a fun-to-watch production. But just like the world of wrestling itself, Fighting With My Family follows a paint-by-numbers script that, in the end, feels a bit sanitized, so that Paige, played by Florence Pugh, comes across less like the leather-clad badass she is in real life and more like an insecure youth who doesn’t know what she’s wrestling for in the first place. While it obviously serves the purpose of her character arc, there’s no effort in showing what really makes her the striking personality that made her interesting enough to be the focus of a film, so I’m left starving to see the feral contender “ram-Paige” across the screen.
The film follows closely to Paige’s origins in Norwich, England, where she and her family teach wrestling to youth as World Association of Wrestling (WAW). Young Saraya Knight and her brother, Zak Zodiac (Jack Lowden), teach classes while their formerly drug-abusing, hard-luck parents—“Rowdy” Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey)—worry about money from low ticket sales to their weekly matches. After months of their audition tapes being rejected, Saraya and Zak get a call from the WWE that auditions are being held in London for the next wrestling superstars. Both siblings spar in a round of auditions with other hopefuls, but only Saraya is approved for the next round of evaluations.
With Zak having a girlfriend and baby to consider, the drama is set as Saraya’s guilt for leveling up in her wrestling career without him offsets her focus. She soon sets off for Florida to train as new obstacles surface. Saraya has a hard time defining her character and creating a fearsome persona, and she freezes up when rowdy crowds are heckling her. Besides that, Saraya is easily triggered by a trio of ex-models and cheerleaders in her Florida training group who remind her of the conventionally prettier girls in her teens who singled her out as a weirdo. With the wise counseling of her coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn), and her brother Zak’s support, Saraya strengthens her alter ego and makes her WWE Raw debut as Paige, owning Divas Champion AJ Lee and becoming the youngest winner of the title at a spunky 18 years old.
Pugh and her co-stars easily bounce between comedy and drama, with a script by Merchant (who previously wrote for The Office and is a frequent collaborator with Ricky Gervais) that provides a balance between lighthearted humor and non-judgmental allusions to the family’s dark, checkered past. It also refuses to play the game of justifying any bit of internalized misogyny within Saraya, who sees her female training rivals as well-rounded, complex women and not just tits and ass—a huge win, honestly.
There’s no strong compulsion within me to tap out of Fighting With My Family, but I wish the much-alluded-to “special quality” that made Saraya/Paige stand out to WWE producers was more explicit. Still, there’s not many movies that celebrate the world of wrestling, nor the women within it; that, along with Pugh’s phenomenal performance, makes this a film worth rooting for.
Fighting With My Family was written and directed by Stephen Merchant; and stars Dwayne Johnson, Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost and Jack Lowden.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.