★★★★ - THE GUARDIAN
These are big movies,” insists Michael Lerner’s studio boss in the Coen brothers’ 1991 hit Barton Fink, “about big men – in tights, both physically and mentally!” He’s trying to explain to John Turturro’s angsty writer the inherent parameters of a wrestling movie, insisting: “We don’t put Wally Beery in a fruity movie about suffering.” Yet just as William Faulkner reportedly did uncredited rewrites on Beery’s 1932 picture Flesh, so writer-director Stephen Merchant here manages to subvert the genre and inject some of “that Barton Fink feeling” into this uplifting romp. Inspired by Max Fisher’s similarly titled Channel 4 documentary about a Norwich wrestling clan, Fighting With My Family is a hugely likable underdog tale, packing plenty of crowd-pleasing comedy wallop, and boasting a smack-down turn from the indomitable Florence Pugh.
Building on her brilliantly modulated performances in Carol Morley’s The Falling and William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, Pugh gets physical as Saraya (AKA “Britani”), punchy daughter of wrestlers Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), and sparring partner of brother Zak (Jack Lowden). Having been raised on dreams of hitting the American big time, the siblings are knocked out when they’re invited to audition for WWE stardom. One suitably shouty encounter with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson later and Vince Vaughn’s trainer/talent scout Hutch has big hopes for this formidable young woman. But can the newly renamed “Paige” make it through Hutch’s Officer and a Gentleman-style boot camp in Florida? Or will she honk the horn of failure (yes, that’s actually a thing) and scurry home with her tail between her legs?
Having co-created The Office and Extras, Merchant shared writer-director credits with Ricky Gervais on Cemetery Junction, an underrated coming-of-age tale (with a star-making turn by Felicity Jones) blessed with a pitch-perfect blend of the bitter and the sweet. Comedy and pathos crack heads once again in this rather more riotous offering, which is closer in tone to the affectionate in-the-ring adventures of Robert Aldrich’s The California Dolls (AKA… All the Marbles) than, say, the breast-beating of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
Crucially, Merchant isn’t asking us to laugh at the pantomime antics of wrestling, a “sport”, once a staple of British TV entertainment, where the competitive element is all to do with performance, but in which there’s a crucial difference between something being “fixed” and “fake”. “If it was fake,” says Ricky with a snarl, “would I have broken half the bones in my body?”, a question that reinforces the air of operatic melodrama lurking beneath the stretchy costumes. Similarly, Merchant’s script, which owes a tonal debt to Lee Hall’s screenplay for Billy Elliot, smartly puts the emphasis on its heroine’s hard-fought ability to win over a crowd, allowing the film to have its cake and eat it in a cleverly contrived finale that artfully mixes artifice and accomplishment.
As the tough-but-loving father with a criminal past (“mainly violence”) who found redemption through wrestling, Frost lands his most lovable role since the bumbling Danny in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. His beefy Ricky combines heft with heart, reminding us of Frost’s nimble talent for physical comedy. Headey is a hoot as Julia, a great role model for her daughter, while Lowden’s Zak wrestles convincingly with the dark shadows of thwarted dreams.
However, it’s Pugh who lands the killer blows as a character who comes out of her corner fighting but still struggles to find her feet in a foreign land. Thrown into a Barbie doll bear pit of bikini-clad warriors, “Paige” sees her prejudices about models and dancers overturned while remaining true to her own goth-girl ethos. Through a deft dramatic sleight of hand, the movie manages to celebrate her black-clad British individuality without casting sneering shade on her beach-blond US counterparts. It’s a delicate balancing act that Merchant handles with aplomb.
As the gently punning title implies, the real battles happen closer to home, away from the ring, something that clearly appealed to exec-producer Johnson, who also hails from a wrestling clan. That the film manages to work around behemoths such as the WWE and still feel oddball and indie is a tribute to Merchant, who first teamed up with the Rock in 2010’s Tooth Fairy, and who seems to be as much of a tough cookie as his musclebound mentor. “Thanks for your heart,” the idealistic Barton Fink was memorably told, all those years ago. “We need more heart in motion pictures.” This has it, in spades.
- Mark Kermode, THE GUARDIAN