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WWE to wrestle on international TV, Paige has to contend with two separate crises: one with her family and one with the outdated shape of the wrestling community’s inclusion of women.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

Lady Macbeth (2017)

I’ve always thought of myself as enough of a costume drama nerd to always be on the hook for a period piece with enough pretty dresses & careful attention to set design. Lady Macbeth proved me wrong. Adapted from the 19th Century bodice-ripper
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and stripped to only the barest of narrative details, the film is both slight & driven by prurience. That exact formula didn’t stop me in the past from enjoying the Russ Meyer schlock Fanny Hill: A Memoir a Woman of Pleasure, though, so the things that bothered me about Lady Macbeth have been much more difficult to pinpoint. My problems with the film have been much more tied to how its narrative structure obscures its themes & intent until the very last minute, so that the film’s thesis plays like a gotcha! twist instead of a fully explored idea. Lady Macbeth is a harsh film packed with cruel, confusing behavior from characters we don’t know and we don’t get to know. Withholding the purpose of their vicious selfishness until the last minute leaves the film leading up to the reveal feeling pointlessly ugly on a spiritual level, something even a (very) pretty dress can’t quite cover up.

Florence Pugh stars as the murderous protagonist referenced in the title, a young woman recently married off as part of a land deal to an older man who has zero sexual interest in her. Alone in a rural England home with her husband, his ornery father, and a mostly black staff of servants & farm hands, she finds herself emotionally isolated & hopelessly bored. She acts out under this pressure in dangerous ways, “failing miserably in every one of [her] marital duties,” which, since her husband will not sexually interact with her, mostly includes listening to the clock tick while wearing a beautiful blue dress. Her protest of this unwanted life mostly entails starting a dangerous, adulterous affair with one of her PoC farm hands, a transgression she makes little, if any effort to hide. As the Shakespeare allusion in the title suggests, it’s a transgression that comes with a body count. She and her lover have to commit an exponentially depraved set of crimes to keep their affair alive, a path of atrocities she pressures the man into until his conscience can no longer take it. There’s a tonal shift from sympathy to shame as her transgressions progress this way, but by the time the film attempts to make a coherent point about the damage she’s causing the runtime comes to halt.

Lady Macbeth is a 90 minute adaptation of a (trashy) novel, stripping almost all story & character development that might provide helpful context for its flawed-by-design protagonist’s actions. There’s a Marie Antoinette-style critique built into the story that faults the title character for her flagrant misbehavior risking other people’s lives as she carelessly has her fun. That subversion of typical costume drama sympathies for women who are sold as wives/property against their will into a story about mishandled, deadly white privilege is certainly interesting, but there’s something infuriating about how Lady Macbeth saves that theme’s development as a last second twist. In the meantime, character motivations are baffling & left to be interpreted as pointlessly cruel. Two early, violent sex acts are depicted so coldly and without context that the question of consent is left entirely obscured, leaving them to feel like un-critical participation in the rape fantasies common to ancient romance novels. It takes an incredible amount of time for the protagonist to start laying the blame for her crimes on her PoC servants, who stand to lose much more than her for the transgressions, leaving no room for reflection on what that dynamic means after the film has concluded. In the meantime, what’s left onscreen feels far beneath the film’s visual quality as a period piece, yet not nearly fun or exciting enough to justify its pulpy tone. Then eventual theme is worthy of exploration it never receives, the characters on both sides of the crimes are never developed enough to elicit a genuine emotional reaction, and everything in-between feels like wasted time, save Pugh’s performance & costuming. Depending on your patience with its thematic reluctance, it might test the period drama devotee in you as well, if not make you question that inclination entirely.

-Brandon Ledet