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“Fighting With My Family,” the solo writing-directing debut of Stephen Merchant (“The Office”), is based on a true story and a colorful documentary . Saraya-Jade (Florence Pugh) and her older brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), have been bred by their WWE-obsessed parents to leg-drop and pile-drive. They each aspire to the big time while ardently participating in their family’s far more regional and ragtag wrestling business. In a sport/entertainment full of skeptics, they’re true believers.
Even the most eccentric passions of working-class England – long a favored reservoir of feel-good underdog tales – have seldom featured as much spandex as “Fighting With My Family.”
Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” Bevis (Nick Frost) and Julia “Sweet Saraya” Bevis (Lena Headey) are your average parents, raising a couple of tykes in Norwich, England, to stand up for themselves, work together, and, you know, maintain a firm choke hold. Collectively they worship at the altar of “Macho Man” Randy Savage; they believe in body slams the way other families preach a heathy breakfast.
The twist in “Fighting With My Family” is not only that Saraya-Jade actually succeeds, winning a tryout with the WWE in Florida, but that this modest and formulaic sports movie takes on unexpected heavyweight status. “Fighting With My Family” was made with the blessing and the branding of the WWE, and it includes plenty of pro wrestler cameos, most notably The Rock, who’s a producer on the film. It’s a little like if Barry Bonds turned up in “The Sandlot.”
Yet “Fighting With My Family” isn’t just about the quixotic small-town dreams of some hard-scrabble devotees, but the leap into megawatt fame, and the strain it can put on family dynamics. When a wisecracking trainer named Hutch (Vince Vaughn, eating it up) at a London tryout picks Saraya-Jade, who renames herself Paige, Zak is told he doesn’t have the “it” factor his sister
Written and directed by The Office’s Stephen Merchant, Fighting With My Family is as hilarious as expected, while also being surprisingly heartfelt. Having already seen the English documentary that the film is based on, Nick Frost, who plays the father to Florence Pugh’s Paige, knew that Merchant could work wonders with the material.
“I was a big wrestling fan. Ever since I was a kid. The Wide World Of Sports with Dicky Davies, Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy,” he tells Metro. “We actually trained for 2 weeks for this to become a proper wrestler. It actually made realize the similarity between acting and performing”
“If you trust the person you are there with you can perhaps leave a little bit of yourself there, physically and emotionally. There are little hints and tips to tell that person what you are going to do next. It is a performance, you are not there to actually kill each other. That is what UFC is for.”
Frost doesn’t have time for people that dismiss wrestling because it isn’t real. “It is allowed to not be real,” he declares. “The bit that isn’t real is the larger than life characters. But the bits that are real are the fact that people are incredible athletes, and without thinking they will put their bodies on the line to entertain mere mortals like us.”
This wasn’t the first time that Frost had partaken in wrestling, though. The Spaced and Hot Fuzz star admits that he and his frequent collaborator Simon Pegg had a period where they “were doing a lot of backyard wrestling.” One drunken wrestle saw Frost power-bomb Pegg through his bed, shattering it instantly.
“As I stood back up Simon pointed out that my thumb was hanging off,” adds Frost. “I relocated it twice and it kept on rolling out of the socket. So I taped it back into position. I always loved that feeling of having a good wrestle.”
But while wrestling obviously plays a key part in Fighting With My Family, Frost is keen to stress that at its core it “is a family film. A great family film. It just happens to have wrestling in it. That shouldn’t put anyone off. If you have a family that you can laugh with and have rows with and are noisy with then you’ll love it.”
And while Frost only met actually met Paige when Fighting With My Family premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, he is clearly enamored with her and the incredible journey that she and her family have gone through.
“She is so lovely, passionate and funny and completely normal. She has, they all have worked so hard. They have had a tough life. Seeing them succeed, it makes me happy. It is an utterly thankless task running something like the WAW in East Anglia.”
“That is how British wrestling began, really. Wrestling for hardly any money, knocking down the ring themselves, putting it back up, traveling around, that is all passion. There was not much money. Ricky and Julia and the kids do it because they love wrestling.”
Cut to the siblings in their teens, with Saraya-Jade (Florence Pugh) hitting the ropes as “Britani” and partner “Zodiac Zak” (Jack Lowden) giving local punters their money’s worth. Then, the call comes: WWE representatives are going to be in London for a Smackdown event. They’ve seen the siblings’ tapes and they’d like both of them to audition. After running into The Rock backstage (Dwayne Johnson in the role he was born to play, i.e. an even more charismatic version of himself), the Knights try out for a wisecracking drill sergeant of a trainer named Hutch (Vince Vaughn). Zak gets the boot. Saraya-Jade gets invited to train in pro-wrestling’s equivalent of the minor leagues in Florida. Soon, our pale, Gothed-out heroine has renamed herself Paige and settled in to a physically punishing boot-camp experience. She also finds herself lost in America, a British Siouxsie Sioux among a sea of Barbies and one bad day away from seeing everything fall apart.