'Fighting with My Family' review: Mum, Dad, the WWE and me

The more globally famous the celebrity, the tougher audiences tend to be on a biopic. Unless it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” because, you know. All those hits.

A different sort of hit-making and punishment-taking sets the tone in “Fighting with My Family,” based on a true story. It’s not a story, or a milieu, I knew anything about going in. In other words, nothing much held me back from enjoying writer-director Stephen Merchant’s engaging, charismatically acted underdog fable.

Best known as a performer, Merchant has a serious knack for casting. He snagged Nick Frost and Lena Headey as the heads of a scrappy, resourceful Norwich, England, wrestling clan. The excellent young actor Jack Lowden (“‘71,” “Dunkirk”) captures the essence of thwarted ambition as son Zak.

And in the lead, the superb Florence Pugh (“Lady Macbeth”) takes on the World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., star known as Paige. Offstage she’s Saraya-Jade Bevis, now 26. On screen in “Fighting with My Family,” as played by Pugh, she’s a tough, continually underestimated striver, with the eye of the tiger and a heart of gold.

Merchant takes the sports biopic clichés just seriously enough. His adaptation, inspired by the (credited) 2012 British documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family,” streamlines events so that the plot stays close to the sister/brother dynamics. The Britain we see here is one of gray skies, council houses and pints at the pub, consumed prior to the next available brawl.

The Knight family makes a living in the wrestling game, fully into the theatrics but serious about the skill required. Saraya aka Paige gets her shot through tryouts with the WWE’s developmental league. Brother Zak doesn’t make the cut and returns to Norwich, where he trains kids (including a blind wrestler-to-be) in the ring. Paige, unencumbered by relationships or domestic concerns, is stuck with only her loneliness.

In Florida, sunny to a ridiculous degree by Norwich standards, Paige finds herself comically and dramatically at odds with her surroundings. Vince Vaughn plays the tough but secretly empathetic trainer, part drill sergeant, part cheerleader. Surrounded by former models and dancers turned highly decorative wrestlers, working-class Paige feels shunned by all that blonde. “Fighting with My Family” charts her ascendancy in the ring, while keeping tabs on her family in Norwich.

Some of the writing’s fresh and spiky, as when one of Paige’s American cohorts gushes over her accent (“You sound like a Nazi in a movie!”). Other parts are more expedient and frankly hokey. Any five minutes of the 2012 documentary on the Knights shows you that the real people this movie’s based on are more rough-edged, and pungently compelling, than their comfortably scruffy movie counterparts. Still, it all feels true enough for the movies, if you know what I mean.

A little research points to the project’s chosen parameters. A WWE Studios co-production, Merchant’s film elides the various controversies and setbacks its protagonist has endured in recent years, notably a sex tape hacking, and a 2018 ring injury that forced her retirement from wrestling. Dwayne Johnson, an executive producer on the project, plays himself in “Fighting with My Family,” the guardian angel and pop-up mentor for Paige, in a way that seems both authentic (who the hell else is going to play The Rock?) and cheerfully, amusingly fake. The whole film is like that: an entertaining gloss on the truth. Pugh quietly invests every moment with a strong current of feeling, as do Frost and Headey. These people are neither angels or thugs, though two of the main characters have known prison time, and a third looks as though he may be heading there himself. They’re entertainers and entrepreneurs. And they’re lively company.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

“Fighting with My Family” — 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content)

Running time: 1:48

Opens: Thursday evening

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