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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Fighting with My Family, Review: Soap opera in spandex

Fighting with My Family, Review: Soap opera in spandex

Somebody must tell biopic makers, especially true stories about sports personalities, that there is very little difference between one and the other. They all follow, more or less, the same road map, and get to the same place. And because these are true stories, the writers and directors do pretty little to enliven the journey, lest they be accused of taking too many liberties, or, worse, earn the ire of the personality in person, if alive, or the successors/estate, if no more. Fighting with My Family is, admittedly, a bit different in terms of subject, being based on the life of a female wrestler, but is unable to redeem itself beyond a point.

Actor-producer Dwayne Johnson, wrestler ‘The Rock’, first saw World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstar, Paige, in 2012, in a BBC Channel 4 documentary, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, which led to this docu-feature. Paige’s family ran the World Association of Wrestling, headed by her father 'Rowdy' Ricky Knight, in Norwich, and they had become the biggest names in UK professional wrestling. Paige (real name Saraya) was the star attraction, then wrestling under the name Britani Knight. Her brother Zak, who was 6'4", was a big name too, known as Zak Zodiac.

Saraya was a reluctant wrestler, and was pushed into the ring by her father, who saw the siblings wrestle over watching their respective favourite TV channels. Saraya was 10 then. When she was 13, Saraya was made to wrestle her brother, and she won, as had been pre-decided. At 18, she had become Britani Knight. Rick and Julia, struggling financially, ask WWE trainer Hutch Morgan to sign the siblings. He finally agrees to a tryout. She and her brother Zak are ecstatic when they get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training programme, while Zak fails to make the cut. Morgan finds the names Saraya and Britani Knight unsuitable for WWE and asks her to choose another name. Saraya adopts the name Paige, from her favourite character on the TV soap opera, Charmed.

Paige has difficulty adjusting to the WWE style of entertainment –only women were to wrestle with woman--and the amateurish styles of her colleagues, Jeri-Lynn, Kirsten, and Maddison, who cause injuries to her. She retaliates, giving one of them a tight slap, calling it a “receipt”. All along, she struggles with Morgan’s constant belittlement.  At an NXT (WWE brand) live event and her in-ring debut, Paige is heckled by the crowd and freezes up, leaving the ring in tears. Morgan encourages Paige to quit and return to her family for a happier life. She travels home for the Christmas break. Paige undergoes a change of heart after Zak gives her a piece of his mind for giving up on their shared dream, and she returns to Florida and her original appearance.

Directed by Stephen Merchant (Cemetery Junction; BBC; The Office) from his own screenplay, with due credit to the Channel 4 documentary, the film is peppered with comic situations, much like the sitcoms Merchant has made. He manages to see the funny side of things, like the scene where Zak’s prospective in-laws come over for dinner, and are scandalised by revelation upon revelation about the lives of the Knight family, including Ricky’s eight year jail term and his other son being currently in prison. Merchant pushes the envelope too far when he delves into physical humour, entering risqué territory. Unfortunately, Fighting with My Family is another one of those films that should have had sub-titles. A lot is lost on account of the accents, which are necessary to keep the actors in character. I am sure I was deprived of three or four wisecracks or puns, being unable to decode the ‘Norwichian’ twangs and keep pace with the visual comedy at the same time. Speaking of visual comedy, you do chuckle when Saraya tells her family that the merchandise that they are selling has her name spelt Page!

‘True story’ notwithstanding, the narrative moves along a predictable story-line. A win for the protagonist is pre-ordained, and as much a given as the ‘fixing’ of wrestling matches. Along the way, there will be a coach who will throw impossible challenges at the prodigy, while a benefactor will provide encouragement (Rock-solid motivation). The star performer-to-be will have issues with the family, but they will end-up providing the fulcrum and anchor for the final go at a championship title.

Hutch Morgan, a fictional character, is an amalgam of four or five such trainers, as is the norm in this format of film-making. Entrusting just one man with the coaching and training of a whole bunch of recruits looks unconvincing. He is omni-present and Mr. Know-all. His reasoning behind rejecting Zak is an interesting bit of flash-forward scenario story-telling, though you might not agree with the premise. But wait for the revelation that The Rock makes, and you will be on his side. Morgan is a fictionalised amalgam, but the benefactor is real, none other than Dwayne Johnson himself. It was Johnson who egged Paige (“Don’t worry about being the next me. Worry about being the first you.” Good writing, that) on to cross the last mile, and the fact that he went on to produce the film is quite a happenstance. The real-life Paige credits Merchant with getting 97% of the story right, and that settles the authenticity debate. Does the film crossover from wrestling fans to general audiences? I have my doubts. Are the moments of joy and sorrow palpable and convincing? Yes, they are. Is the film inspiring? Sure. Nothing outstanding, though.

Florence Pugh (British; 5’4”; The Falling, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, Outlaw King) lacks the height you might expect of a wrestler. Merchant made her do most of the wresting herself, with a double used only sparingly. It is not strange that she does not over-emote, even when there are those moments of drama, being a wrestler. Black or blonde, she carries her hair well in either colour. Her diction is not unexpectedly good, perhaps too good for a Norwich wrestler. Her mother is played by Lena Headey, with a mixture of cockiness and practicality. Nick Frost as her father is a scene-stealer and the one with the heaviest accent. He has an innate sense of comic timing. Jack Lowden as Zak carries on well, until he is made to get into a bar-fight, where he looks out of sorts.

Vince Vaughn as Hutch Morgan has a meaty role, with a detached coldness about his demeanour. Along the way, he shows various personality traits, and comes across as humane in the end. Paige has a name for Kim Matula as Jeri-Lynn, Aqueela Zoll as Kirsten and Ellie Gonsalves as Maddison: she calls them “tits and ass”. You soon find out how mistaken she was, for the trio are, in fact, warm and friendly. Stephen himself plays Zak’s prospective father-in-law, Hugh, while Julia Davis plays his wife, Daphne (name obviously inspired by the historic stage comedy produced by the actress, based on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca). Both of them provide dead-pan bouncing boards for the outrageous dinner conversation the Knights come-up with. Thea Trinidad as A.J. Lee comes, sees and gets conquered. That leaves the big man Dwayne Johnson. Comfortable playing himself, he gives you a bonus when he metamorphoses into The Rock, to oblige bedazzled Saraya and Zak.

Paige is asked why she became a wrestler, and she replies because everybody in her family is a wrestler. Asked again, she gives the same reply. Third time around, she gives the usual rigmarole about how it liberates her and makes her feel herself. Nothing like some extempore motivation, as hollow and stereo-typical as they come!

WWE is a soap opera in spandex, watched by high on adrenaline twenty thousand people and millions on live TV. It is big business alright. On the big screen, the mania is not so pronounced. You can go watch it and grapple with the head-locks, or, 108 minutes could be spent on something more fruitful.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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