When expressing admiration for an actor’s talents, it’s common — even hackneyed — to note a willingness to follow them anywhere. I’ve made this pledge, but I’ve rarely honored it. There was a time when I was prepared to make such a claim about Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example. Yet no amount of certainty that he was among the finest actors of his generation was going to make me buy a ticket to Along Came Polly. My general selectivity and the increasing need for even the most fiercely serious actors to stoop to dismal bill-paying roles means I’m especially disinclined to to follow any individual performer’s pied piping nowadays. And yet there I sat in a darkened theater pondering the unfamiliar emblem of the WWE Films logo preceding a feature film viewing experience I’d willingly sought out. So I guess this is where I’m currently at with Florence Pugh.
As was the case with many, Pugh seized my attention with her sharp, probing performance in the 2017 film Lady Macbeth. Further assurance that she’s the real deal came, for me, with last year’s miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, which flashed enough range to hint that she could ply her cunning performing chops just about anywhere. As a young, British actress, though, there was a strong chance she’d bound from one costume drama to another. There are far more dire outcomes, but a dearth of variety struck me as a particularly unfortunate turn for someone flaring with rare charisma and ingenuity. Thus, the prospect of Pugh playing, of all things, a recent a professional wrestler is nothing short of a joyous gift.
Fighting with My Family is a biopic of Saraya-Jade Bevis (Pugh), who wrestled for WWE under the name Paige. Adhering the preferred sports movie trajectory, Paige comes from hardscrabble beginnings, wrestling in bargain bin matches as part of the family business in the English city of Norwich. She and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) both dream of breaking into the biggest show in the world, but their tryout yields the bond-rupturing result of only one advancing. Saraya adopts the ring name Paige and grinds through the tough, demoralizing process of training with other hopefuls in what is essentially an ongoing audition process.
Stephen Merchant wrote the screenplay and presided over the film in his first solo feature directing job. His work is sturdy enough, but also slightly wobbly as he never quite locks fully into a tone. Sometimes the film is sincere, sometimes it’s broadly comic, and it occasionally lapses into an almost sitcom cadence of obvious setup followed by an equally expected punchline. He’s on far more certain and effective ground when he honors the value of the final word of the title, earnestly exploring the dynamics of a misfit family (the parents are played with appropriate verve by Nick Frost and Lena Headey) and the daughter pursuing a unlikely professional path.
As for the person who lured me to the film in the first place, Pugh is highly enjoyable as Paige, leveling a born brawler’s scowl at the world around here while simultaneously acknowledging the vulnerability a hard luck kid would feel when set before the vastness of a massive money-making enterprising built on strobing showmanship. Even so, there’s only so much she can do within a story that rarely ventures deeper than surface level, missing opportunities in the process. In particular, the requisite triumphant ending is undermined by a feel of phoniness, perversely because it treat pro wrestling like any other sport, its final reckoning determined as much by luck and fate an anything else. Since Fighting with My Family has already acknowledged the artifice in the form, no one’s trying to preserve an illusion. The question when Paige crosses the ropes for her first big match isn’t really about whether she can win, it’s about whether she can perform, a far more complex — and therefore fascinating — challenge that the filmmakers basically ignore. In the end, the WWE narrative is knocked aside by the standard issue Hollywood sports movie underground trope. To my surprise, it turns out the pro wrestling approach is more authentic.