Thursday, February 21, 2019

Wrestling for family and fame

Fighting With My Family uses a regional British accent to freshen its formula.
All sports movies -- even those that have more to do with showmanship than competition -- follow a familiar template. An underdog beats long odds to wind up exulting in a triumphant moment, usually one involving a championship. Such movies serve a dual purpose. First, they're meant to entertain and second, they provide inspirational reassurance, something along the lines of, "Hey, if I can do it (whatever 'it' happens to be), so can you." Many of these movies bolster their credibility with early-picture declarations that they are based on true stories.

Fighting With My Family, the latest such endeavor, takes place in the world of professional wrestling, where "competitors" execute choreographed moves designed to keep each other from getting killed or maimed.

All such movies struggle to find an element that adds flavor to the formula and Fighting With My Family follows suit. In this case, the movie's idiosyncracies derive from its focus on a downscale wrestling family that lives in Norwich, England. The Knight family has pinned its hopes on a dream, that at least one of them will ascend to WWE ranks.

Toward this end, Saraya (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) travel from Norwich to London to audition for a Florida-based program that trains wrestlers for the WWE. To move on, they must impress Hutch, a talent scout played by Vince Vaughn in a role that allows him to crack the whip, both verbally and physically.

To borrow from another hoary genre (military training movies), Hutch becomes a kind of drill sergeant; the aspiring wrestlers, his raw recruits. Vaughn's Hutch doesn't believe in letting wash-outs down easily. He tells them their dreams have reached an unceremonious conclusion. End of story.

A basic tension emerges when Saraya -- who later takes the wrestling name Paige -- makes the cut and her hard-driving brother doesn't. The fates of brother and sister are determined less by physical ability than by what Hutch deems that "special something," the capacity to win over a crowd that enjoys vocal rejection as much as enthusiastic acceptance. Put another way, wrestling fans would just as soon jeer as cheer.

Dwayne Johnson -- a.k.a. The Rock -- once staked out his turf in the world of professional wrestling. Johnson served as one of the movie's producers and makes brief appearances that may have been intended to add some mega-wattage to a lesser known cast.

While Zak broods at home, Paige becomes an outsider in a group of trainees in which the women tend to be blondes who look good in bikinis and whose looks are expected to help them.

The movie would have us believe that Paige represents the freakish outsider and the rest of the women are the wrestling equivalent of stuck-up sorority girls. To its credit, the movie later tries to humanize its trio of hotties.

Pugh approaches her work with determination as her performance follows a typical arc through aspiration, self-doubt and final ascendancy.

As Paige's parents, Nick Frost and Lena Headey register well, portraying a couple that survives by staging wrestling matches in Norwich. The movie spells out the pressures put on Paige for her the sake of her family (her triumph also will be theirs) but too easily resolves them. So it goes with a story directed by Stephen Merchant who also wrote the screenplay and makes an appearance as Zac's father-in-law.

As is the case with many formulaic sports movies, too much thought can serve as a spoiler. Why we're supposed to celebrate Paige's triumph in a sport where matches are scripted proves a bit baffling. It probably has something to do with her finally becoming self-confident enough to claim her place in the wrestling world.

Enough. Fighting With My Family earns points for trying to freshen the formula and achieves some success as a crowd-pleasures, but its truest moments arrive during the end credits when Paige and her real family make their obligatory appearance in what has been, to cite yet another sport, a mostly minor-league effort.

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