A heartwarming coming-of-age tale, mixed with the goofy theatrics of professional wrestling, this charmingly unexpected crowd-pleaser tells the story of a young woman finding joy in doing what she loves. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Take “Billy Elliot,” trade the refined world of ballet for the “soap opera in spandex” of professional wrestling, swap the preteen boy for a young woman, throw in The Rock — because every movie is better with The Rock, right? — and you’ve got “Fighting With My Family,” a shaggily likable underdog tale. Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), who wrestles under the name Paige (she’s a goth-y “Charmed” fanatic), lives in working-class Norwich, England, with her excitable, wrestling-obsessed family, and the movie tells us what happened when she was given the life-changing chance to try out for the ultimate wrestling circus, the WWE.
It’s a true story — home-video footage over the closing credits confirms that the creatively coifed Knights are no screenwriters’ invention — and it’s both formulaic sports movie and charmingly unexpected crowd-pleaser. Pugh (who was electric in “Lady Macbeth” a couple of years ago) is the film’s heart; her Saraya/Paige is a scrappy, hair-flinging fighter who lands on the mat with a theatrical thud, but always bounces back up again. She adores her parents (Nick Frost, Lena Headey) and brother Zak (Jack Lowden) — though he’s been known to toss a sweaty jockstrap in her face — but mostly, she loves being in the ring. “It’s an escape, isn’t it?” she says wonderingly, when asked why she likes it. “The world just disappears, and I feel like I belong somewhere.”
Much of the fun of “Fighting With My Family” is the contrast of this heartwarming coming-of-age content with the goofy theatrics of professional wrestling, in which a hopeful wears as his costume “a leopard in sheikh’s clothing” and everyone’s careful to specify that matches are not fake, but “fixed.” (Given that, the level of suspense around Paige’s ultimate championship bout seems weirdly dissonant.) Ultimately, though, this is a movie in which The Rock, in fake anger, refers to Paige and Zak as “two rejects from Harry Potter,” and a young woman finds joy in doing what she loves. Resist it at your peril.
★★★ “Fighting With My Family,” with Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant. 107 minutes. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, and some violence and drug content. Opens Feb. 22 at multiple theaters.