'Fighting with My Family': Truth in Wrestling
Watching director Stephen Merchant's "Fighting with My Family," about a tight-knit family of professional wrestlers whose two youngest members have aspirations of making the big time, I, of course, had to think of my father.
Daniel Goldberger, a trucking company owner who submerged into the Polish underground in 1939 just before the Nazis confiscated his trucks and painted swastikas on them, was a kind but serious man. Even his jokes more often than not made a point, which played quite entertainingly against Mom's rather satiric sense of humor. Thus it is an
anomaly I've never figured out that my Dad loved professional wrestling. It was as if he simply didn't hear you when you tried to explain that it was fake.
But his curious suspension of disbelief wound up working out just fine for me. The rare quality time I got to spend sitting on the carpet next to Dad in the classically worn easy chair Mom was always trying to get rid of was priceless. His vigorous, animated rooting for the good guys proved a preciously unforgettable tutorial in morality, even if it did make Mom worry it would give him a heart attack. Often joined by Taffy, the wirehaired mutt terrier with a perfect black eye with whom I emulated the roughhousing on the tube, the resultant rhubarb guaranteed a convivial bedlam in the living room on fight night.
So it is with no difficulty that I embrace the passion that Norwich, England's, Bevis family holds for professional wrestling. Depicted as a balm against a previous life of crime for Nick Frost's Ricky, the Mohawk-coiffured dad, photographs and posters of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) greats throughout the home attest to the religious fervor of their patronage.
Establishing their own cottage industry wrestling exhibitions as the Knight family, both locally and via ragtag but ambitious barnstorming excursions, they develop a following, which in due time earns the notice of those major wrestling powers that be. Daughter Saraya, formidably portrayed by Florence Pugh, and son Zak, played by Jack Lowden, are invited to WWE's regional cattle call for talent.
Unfortunately, but providing the biopic with an absorbingly etched sibling rivalry, WWE scout Hutch, smartly realized by Vince Vaughn, believes only Saraya is the goods. Fast forward and the spunky gal is rocketed to the opulence, splendor and no-nonsense demands of the WWE training camp in Miami while Zak is left to stare into the vacuum of hopelessness that inevitably first follows when your long-held dreams are crushed. Hence the stage is set for a troublesome rift in the heretofore proudly close brood who all but have a framed tapestry on the parlor wall declaring, "The Family That Wrestles Together Stays Together."
It is to director Merchant's credit and thanks to a fine ensemble cast that what might have devolved into a predictable, made-for-TV melodrama rises above its seemingly formulaic parts, tapping with insight into the heart of family dynamics and aspirations. The Knights/Bevises are working class heroes, folks trying to carve out a living for themselves and in search of a safe place where their mutual love can flourish unhampered. And if there's a little bit of distinguishing glory to be achieved along the way, then bring it on, mate.
The inherently poetic contradiction here is that to the backdrop of professional wrestling, which our protagonists vehemently maintain is "fixed, not fake," their saga is as real as it gets. In the strange literary Twilight Zone that exists between reality and fiction, "Fighting with My Family" unearths truths for all their heartaches and joys. And, if we are to take this allegory yet one more elucidative step, the contention worthy of Aristotle, Socrates and Groucho Marx is that true happiness is only possible when we summon the courage to ascertain and embrace the truth.
The engaging ethic is dramatically illustrated in a smoothly achieved, to-and-fro switching between the Bevis family's challenges back on the home front in stark Norwich and Saraya's travail in sunny Miami, where our lady wrestler, instructed to choose a ring name, decides she is now Paige. But what about it? What is her inner essence, contends the always challenging Hutch, aiming to surface the star power that caused him to single out his prodigy in the first place.
Problem is, that inner greatness, conceivably built of a winning vulnerability just aching to scream its ethos to the world, won't easily peek out from its protective shell.
What follows is a "Rocky"-like pageant of strenuous training sequences, both visceral and emotional as Paige is dared to shed the safety of small-time competition for the risks and obstacles that comprise the real deal. Competing against a field of decidedly glamorous, more likely looking candidates for grappling glory, she is the likable underdog for whom we develop a vicarious, cheering interest. I'm sure both Taffy and Dad would have been in her corner.
"Fighting with My Family," rated PG-13, is a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release directed by Stephen Merchant and stars Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden and Vince Vaughn. Running time: 108 minutes
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