The brood in “Fighting With My Family” is a rambunctious crowd. There’s mum and dad Knight, and a handful of adult kids (one’s doing time). Professional wrestlers all, they grapple with one another in and out of the ring while running a gym in Norwich, England.
The family that smacks down together stays together, or at least that’s the idea in this charmer about love and choreographed war.
Writer/director Stephen Merchant plunges into the domestic fray straightway, opening with a peek at the Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson, living the dream on the Knights’ television. Johnson is one of the movie’s producers as well as one of the story’s leading talismans, the embodiment of the Knight family ideal.
A poster of him from his title glory days hangs in the bedroom of the family’s daughter, Paige (Florence Pugh), who’s been wrestling since she was a young teenager. Alongside her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden), Paige is carrying on a tradition begun by her parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), who found salvation both in each other and inside the ring.
Sports movies tend to cling to a familiar template, one involving struggle, tears, heart, soul and triumph — cue the cheering crowd. This isn’t much different, which is extremely and shrewdly on point for a movie about professional wrestlers with bigger-than-life personalities and flamboyant stage names who, in a circumscribed space, deliver precisely coordinated, rule-bound narratives of victory, agony and defeat.
Much of the movie turns on a sibling rivalry that nearly rends the family when Paige is selected at an audition for World Wrestling Entertainment (product placement note: WWE Studios helped make the movie) and is shipped off to a Florida boot camp.
Zak licks his wounds at home, trying and generally failing to deal with disappointment. As Merchant toggles between Zak and Paige, he settles into a familiar struggle between authenticity and artificiality, a seemingly odd divide on which to hang a tale of professional wrestlers. Still, it works.
Merchant (best known for the original British version of “The Office,” which he helped create) has a terrific cast (including Vince Vaughn as a coach), pinpoint timing and a gift for visual japes and physical comedy, for arranging bodies in funny formations and for underlining everyday absurdity.
Merchant also has a sense of flow. Even when the jokes are as blunt as the bowling ball that Ricky delivers to another wrestler’s groin — they’re testing out a dubious routine — they just slide into the story, becoming part of its textured realism.
The movie is broadly funny but never mean or patronizing; it takes the Knights, their eccentricities and quixotic aspirations seriously. Merchant doesn’t seem keen to score political points, but he nevertheless quietly delivers some truths amid the laughter and hurt.