The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family (2012)

I was initially skeptical of the recent, Stephen-Merchant-directed biopic of WWE superstar Paige, Fighting with My Family, even as someone who’s greatly enjoyed following her pro wrestling career. WWE’s involvement in the production led me to expect the Dianetics-level propaganda of revisionist history & TV commercial production sheen the company always applies to their hagiographic retellings of their own lore, which is more or less true to the film’s aesthetic. There’s just something about the its Disney Channel Original energy that clashes wonderfully with Merchant’s sharp comedic wit and the working-class crassness of the wrestlers it profiles, though, that gives it a surprisingly effective, compelling tone. There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the way Merchant worked that R-rated Disney Channel Original tonal clash to the film’s advantage, but I might at least have been less skeptical that Paige’s life story was worthy of the biopic treatment if I had first seen the BBC documentary that inspired it. Produced as a one-hour special for Channel 4, The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is a low-key, made-for-TV documentary that’s just as saturated with the tones and tropes of the post-MTV True Life reality TV doc as its later, fictionalized version is adherent to the safe commercial feel of WWE’s self-propaganda. In this instance, however, the story of Paige’s peculiar family dynamic and inspiring rise to power story is enough to make for a compelling picture against all aesthetic odds – just like in the biopic. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family is not quite as great of an achievement as its fictionalized follow-up, but it is the foundational text for that work – both inspiring its title and being included in clips during its end credits sequence for texture. Most importantly, it makes abundantly clear how Paige’s early-career story is fascinating enough to justify two separate, surprisingly successful movies.

The daughter of two Northern English pro wrestlers who once performed on television but now run their own local promotion in VFW hall-scale venues, Paige was groomed since birth to be a successful pro wrestler herself. Named Saraya after her mother’s in-ring character and commercially exploited by her parents as (in their own words) “eye candy” and “a product,” Paige’s traveling carnie lifestyle is fascinating whether or not you have an interest in pro wrestling as an artform. That familial dynamic only gets more bizarre as she emerges as the only breakout star among her inner circle, inspiring frustrated jealousy in her wrestling-nut brother and conflicted sentimental & financial pangs in her proud, but possessive parents. The Wrestlers has the exact opposite problem than the proper Fighting with My Family biopic; WWE’s strict press lockout keeps the cameras away from Paige’s tryout drama & professional training here, whereas the latter film focuses heavily on those backstage details in an image-controlled environment. Instead, the doc gets a more intimate and (by default) more honest depiction of Paige’s domestic life, as well as insight into the personal histories of her family. For the most part, the core story told in this documentary does carry over into its fictionalized follow-up, except the biopic has the advantage of backstage WWE access as lagniappe. However, seeing the 20-something Florence Pugh portray a fictionalized version of Paige does not give you an accurate idea of how much of a naïve baby she was when WWE signed her as a teenager. There’s something about seeing this young child shouldering massive familial responsibility and navigating deep-seated emotional resentments she has no fault in that comes through much stronger in this reality-TV doc than it does in the more convenient fiction, even if The Wrestlers is ultimately relegated to supplementary material for a much better film.

There easily could have been a scenario where Paige’s WWE career never took off and this one-off BBC doc could instead have developed into an episodic reality TV show. The MTV True Life aesthetics & gawking fascination with the wrestler’s peculiar family dynamic makes it feel like that was the original plan, that her WWE signing was a freak occurrence that threw everyone involved for a loop. That kind of midstream surprise (a swerve, if u will) always makes for a more compelling documentary, and Paige’s continued prominence in the WWE (which has not always been smooth sailing, to say the least) has only assured this one a cultural longevity it would not have achieved otherwise. At the end of the film, Paige promises she will change the shape of women’s wrestling in the company into something respectable beyond the T&A eye-candy roles performers had been relegated to for decades. She did eventually play a major part in achieving that goal, an accomplishment that helped justify blowing this story up to a feature-length biopic treatment. The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family isn’t quite as substantial as that biopic, but it does provide additional, essential texture that only strengthens the biopic in retrospect – so essential that it’s featured in clips in that latter text. It’s especially illuminating in getting a grasp on just how young Paige was when she was trained for this business and was signed by the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, which drastically alters how we understand her accomplishments & her family dynamic.

-Brandon Ledet

Fighting with My Family (2019)

Even though I’m a huge pro wrestling fan and Stephen Merchant’s dual credit as writer-director vouched for its quality, I did not expect to get much out of Fighting with My Family. WWE-produced content tends to have a slick, careful, personality-free approach to revisionist history when telling its own story, which usually prompts me to expect the eerie gloss of a Dianetics infomercial DVD rather than heartfelt cinema. Maybe it was that hyperactive skepticism that allowed me to have an intense, unexpected emotional reaction to this picture despite its unembarrassed commercialism and weakness for revisionist bullshit. This is the hardest I’ve laughed and the most I’ve cried in a movie I didn’t expect either from since 2017’s Power Rangers reboot (which was essentially a feature-length commercial for Krispy Kreme donuts). Aesthetically & craft-wise, Fighting with My Family feels like a poorly aged relic from the early aughts, a once-true story sanitized for wide commercial appeal. Yet, as an achievement in screenwriting, it’s a shockingly dirty, oddly inspiring rise-to-power story that somehow does the pro wrestler Paige’s early career & peculiar familial dynamic full justice, against all odds. The clash of its rowdy dialogue & commercial production sheen feels like an approximation of an R-rated Disney Chanel Original Movie – the exact kind of target audience grey area pro wrestling occupies in the real world.

Paige, born Saraya-Jade Bevis & originally wrestling under the ring name Britani Knight, is portrayed in this simplistic rise to power biopic by acting chameleon Florence Pugh (entirely unrecognizable from her breakout role in Lady Macbeth). Raised by professional wrestler parents (Nick Frost & Lena Headey), she was trained in the ring by her older brother as a family-supporting commodity, just like in any other clan of carnies. When she’s unexpectedly signed by the WWE to wrestle on international TV, Paige has to contend with two separate crises: one with her family and one with the outdated shape of the wrestling community’s inclusion of women. Her family is proud of her professional accomplishments, but also sad to see her go (along with the money she makes for their local promotion) and resentful that her wrestling fanatic brother was not also signed. As a pale mall-goth with a life-long pro wrestling fetish, she’s also at odds with how major promotions treated their female performers until recent years: as eye candy or, in her parlance, T&A. Paige’s major contribution to WWE, what makes her biopic worthy to fans in the wrestling community, is how her unconventional fashion choices & legitimate ring skills helped bring an end to WWE’s Divas era, where women were mostly hired as models & dancers to stir up fans’ libidos. She helped usher in the current so-called Women’s Revolution, where legitimate female performers from the indie circuit are being given an opportunity to wrestle in earnest. What makes Fighting with My Family impressive as a piece of writing, though, is that it never villainizes Paige’s family or the more conventional eye-candy babes she seeks to prove herself against. Nor does it let her off the hook for her shortcomings in handling these conflicts as a naive teen suddenly burdened with massive responsibilities. The movie offers empathy to every character its story touches while not at all shying away from their faults, which is just as important to its success as sketching out how influential Paige was in wrestling’s recent, gendered sea change.

Of course, anyone who’s already familiar with Paige’s WWE career should find plenty to chew on here while picking apart the film’s rearranged timeline & selective memory. Specifically, Paige’s career-ending injuries & backstage controversies are (smartly) excised here to make for a cleaner, more inspiring version of the truth. Yet, the movie surprisingly doesn’t shy away from including WWE pariah AJ Lee from the story of how Paige influenced a massive change within the Women’s Division, which Lee also had a major involvement in before she became a persona non grata within the company (although they do weirdly mischaracterize Lee here as an ex-model Bella-type instead of a fellow wrestling-nerd goth). For wrestling fans, these storytelling decisions (along with the company’s continued support & inclusion of Paige after her body gave out at a disturbingly young age) are an encouraging sign of changing times, and it feels great to see the upswing of that change reflected here in the context of Paige’s early-career accomplishments. I’d like to think Fighting with My Family works just as well for audiences who don’t care at all about wrestling, though. Stephen Merchant’s dialogue (and bit part cameo) is sharply funny. Paige’s familial dynamic as the sole breakout star in a clan of fame-starved wrestling carnies is objectively fascinating (and well-performed by Pugh). The film also makes a genuine effort to convey pro wrestling’s artistic & emotional appeal – both on the scale of communal VFW hall events and on the global stage of the WWE. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have as emotional of a reaction to the film as I did – both because of my personal interest in women’s pro wrestling and because I’m generally an emotional wreck. However, I can at least testify to the movie achieving far more than you would typically expect from something so aesthetically unassuming, given its cheesy guitar-riff soundtrack & Disney Channel sheen. The strengths of Merchant’s writing instincts & Pugh’s fully-committed performance are likely to catch you off-guard in tandem, forming one superb tag team.

-Brandon Ledet