While implying an outlandish comedy that takes some risks in its approach to comedy, Fighting With My Family is far from the laugh out loud comedy its title suggests. This is far more conventional than most would expect and while some smaller moments work on a dramatic level its hard to find the core of this tale, one that should have more guts and finds itself stuck within familiar character arcs are rote storytelling. Director Stephen Merchant while well versed in the kind of playful British comedy that should work here gets bogged down in the simplicity of his script and the rest of production suffers because of it.
Telling the true story of Saraya ‘Paige’ Bevis (Florence Pugh), an amateur wrestler who is given the opportunity to join the WWE along with her brother Zac (Jack Lowden). A rare chance leads her to a world she doesn’t understand away from her family and the community she had been born into thanks to the people around her. While she is trying to live up to her family and what they expect of her she must decide who she is and if what she wants meshes with her family’s expectations of her.
While the real life story Fighting With My Family is based around is uniquely singular, the way it is approached is remarkably reductive. pigeonholed into the role of family friendly drama, Paige’s story is more than the tale of a young woman’s personal growth, yet it never feels like it. Stuck telling a story that rarely moves out of the usual tired plot threads and feel good montages of the average sports film, Merchant is too straight-laced in his approach and his’ trendsetting’ story never has the vibrancy or adventure it demands you see in it. While there is a hidden story about class, snobbery and people’s preconceived notions of others, it is buried underneath a mask of light comedy and forced drama.
While the duo of Pugh and Lowden inject some much-needed soul into a film severely lacking in passion they are overburdened with a paint by numbers script that seems more interested in adding family orientated light comedy into a tale that needs a little edge but is too frightened to reach for. Paige and Zac make moments within the story work thanks to some delicate character work but Paige and Zac’s stories feel far apart from each other, never linked into the grander picture. While the film requests you connect their stories, finding empathy for each other through their shared experiences, but they aren’t shared, they never feel like the family Merchant has built into the bones of this tale.
While Pugh wants to let loose and give in to Paige’s daring yet constricted personality, Merchant wants her to grow on his timetable, not naturally within his story. For a fish out of water story, Paige is oddly protected and contained, never really embracing the difficulty of her impressive rise to fame. Backed up by a woefully underused Lena Headey and a painfully dull Nick Frost as her parents, Fighting With My Family fills out its ranks as an ensemble comedy, never a drama. The plot construction leads to imbalances and while the films darker moments are sullied by overly cutesy comedy. More often than not meeting in the middle, this is the definition of the word dramedy but it aspires to so much more, something the dramedy descriptor stops it from becoming.
The irony of this larger than life tale is that the film feels too small. Merchant’s characters never link into the bigger picture, the jokes feel too minimalist, never striving for the darker joke, just the serviceable one. Despite a wide open heart, this lacks the power that should come with the kind of emotions Merchant is playing with. A reel of the real life people the film is based around fills out the closing credits and while it is nice to see where these people came from, it is hard not to notice how the people witnessed here are far more fascinating than the characters we got. When you find the people shown for three minutes at the end of a film are more dynamic than the ones you have spent over two hours with, you unfortunately have to admit that something has gone drastically wrong.