To say a movie is “entertaining” is often damning with faint praise. Watching funny YouTube videos about goats can be entertaining. Scrolling through Twitter can be entertaining. To say something is entertaining is often to suggest it has met the very low bar of not being so boring that you gave up before it ended. But there’s an art to making a truly entertaining movie – the kind of movie in which the acting sells an unusual story, the details draw you in, and you go 100+ minutes without ever discreetly checking the time on your cell phone. Fighting with My Family is that kind of entertaining movie.
The film’s plot is a textbook athlete underdog tale: Saraya (Florence Pugh) and her family are completely devoted to wrestling. It’s their life, their livelihood, and – they hope – their future. When Saraya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) get selected to try out for the WWE, the door opens for their dreams to come true. So, when she’s selected and he’s not, things get complicated, and they both struggle with the way the future looks through the lens of reality. Zak is devastated by the prospect of losing his dream and getting stuck in their small town, and Saraya deals with the fact that the path to that dream is still long, painful, and lonely.
That Fighting With My Family is based on the real life of retired professional wrestler Saraya-Jade Bevis only adds to the way the story is basically custom-made to be entertaining. But plot alone isn’t enough to make a movie compelling, and writer and director Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) uses details to truly connect the viewers to the film. We learn a lot about these characters and their wrestling dedication from things like their names: Saraya chooses “Paige” as her stage name at the last minute just because she likes the show Charmed, and the name “Saraya” was chosen because it was her mother’s wrestling stage name. Zak shows his dedication to wrestling throughout the film, but perhaps never more so than in a scene in which he’s body-slammed into a pile of thumbtacks. Watching him later as he pulls the thumbtacks out of his back conveys the physical pain of the sport in a way that a punch or kick – which might be pulled as part of the act – can’t quite do.
Speaking of the physicality, the actors in this film, Pugh and Lowden in particular, demonstrate exceptional athletic ability. It’s all the more impressive that they also have great familial chemistry as well, both with each other and with Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Paul) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), who play their parents. This film is largely about family and what we owe to and give to one another, and although Merchant’s script pokes at what is and isn’t healthy in relationships with family, there’s never any question that these people love one another. It’s also worth noting that Vince Vaughn is well cast as Saraya’s coach in a role that requires the exact balance of humor and heart Vaughn can offer without making the character overly obnoxious or implausibly sentimental.
Fighting with My Family won’t stay with you because it’s brilliant or subversive, but it’s fun to watch. It’ll make you laugh, it might make you cry, and you get to root for the characters and leave the theater feeling good when everything turns out ok in the end. It’s just plain old good entertainment, just not the monkey riding a dog kind.