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.