Although Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson gets top billing in British writer & director Steven Merchants’ amusing but insightful wrestling biography “Fighting with My Family” (**** OUT OF ****), he spends most of its 108 minutes off screen.  In other words, if you’re going to watch another of the Rock’s conventional action thrillers, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.  Essentially, “Fighting with My Family” is the equivalent of a female version of “Rocky” (1976), and Merchant chronicles the rise of a female British wrestler, Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh of “Outlaw King”), who had dreamed since age 13 about breaking into the WWE.

In case you aren’t familiar with the acronym, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., is what it means.  Mind you, the WWE classifies their matches as dramatic because they amount to theatrical productions, with narrative-forged escapades orchestrated long before the talent tangle before multitudes.  Approximately eight years ago, when Johnson was in the U.K., filming “Fast & Furious 6,” he saw a documentary about a Norwich-based family that held impromptu matches.  He enjoyed it so much he contacted his “Tooth Fairy” co-star Steven Merchant about writing a screenplay about the Knight family’s outrageous shenanigans.  The patriarch of the Knight clan had wrestled professionally before he established a school for wrestlers that kept at-risk juveniles out of trouble.

As the title suggests, “Fighting with My Family” concerns a contentious, dysfunctional, working-class yarn about aspiring wrestlers.  Nevertheless, this entertaining biopic isn’t a generic, shallow account of the wrestling world that you’ll forget once you’ve seen it.  Indeed, this movie is all about female empowerment and the groundbreaking changes for women that Saraya Knight brought about as one of the youngest WWE Divas Champions.  Merchant has created several sympathetic characters who experience change over time.  Refusing to ridicule wrestling, Merchant has infused this factual story with as much blue-collar authenticity as if it had been made in the 196os, like the Albert Finney classic “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”  The dialogue is literate; the performances endearing, and the humor is often subtle but never crude.

“Fighting with My Family” concentrates on the exploits of our heroine, Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh of “Lady Macbeth”), who wasn’t bitten by the wrestling bug until she turned thirteen and found herself substituting for an absent wrestler.  Saraya’s father, stout Ricky Knight (Nick Frost of “Shawn of the Dead”), operates his own wrestling franchise in England.  When Ricky isn’t promoting tournaments, Ricky’s second son Zak Knight (Jack Lowden of “Dunkirk”) teaches at-risk adolescents, from public school to drop-outs, how to wrestle.   Zak recruits all kinds, saving one teen from the misfortune of peddling contraband narcotics to lowlifes.  Zak doesn’t rate as much screen time as Saraya, but his impact on his sister’s life is his prime contribution to the plot.

Zak grew up watching the WWE.  As a child, he could identify every wrestler strictly by their footwear.  Obsessively, he had dreamed about wrestling in the WWE long before Saraya got converted.  The WWE dispatches a gruff coach, Hutch (Vince Vaughn of “Wedding Crashers”), to London in search of fresh blood.  Saraya and Zak attend the audition with a carnival of other hopeful types in spandex.  Tragically, Zak doesn’t make the cut.  Neither, for that matter, does anybody else, except his younger sister Saraya.  Of course, she is stunned.  Originally, she wanted to use the name Brittany, but the WWE already had a Brittany, so Saraya settles for Paige.

As Paige, Saraya dresses like a Goth girl: black apparel, black hair, with dark raccoon eyes.  Later, during her first official bout, Paige encounters a defending champion who teases her appearance about her Halloween costume.  Initially, Saraya refused to make the flight to train in Florida unless Zac came along, but Hutch refused to add her brother.  Predictably, Hutch’s decision crushes Zac.  By all rights, Zac seemed like a shoo-in with his experience and demeanor.

Over the ensuing 45 minutes, Zac struggles with the demise of his dream, momentarily careening off the rails himself in a bar fight until his older brother, Roy Knight (James Burrows of 2010’s “Robin Hood”), straightens him out.  It seems Zak is a natural born teacher who inspires his students.  Once Zak realizes his destiny lies with his family and the next generation of wrestlers that he can develop, he sheds his anxiety about his failure to make the WWE.

Meanwhile, Paige discovers training in sunny, faraway Florida is no picnic.  She has to negotiate tough obstacle courses and flip over huge tractor tires to either shape up or ship out.  At first, she alienates herself and dismisses a quartet of bimbo-like babes with golden California tans and statuesque figures.  Paige’s mother, Julia (Lena Headey of “Dredd”), warns her daughter about such creatures who use their bodies to mesmerize audiences with their physical endowments.

Paige dismisses them as if they were prostitutes, until she realizes that she has not only misjudged them but also herself.  Hutch hovers over his recruits like a boot camp drill instructor.  Constantly, he taunts them when they find the going desperate to take the easy way out and quit.  Throughout these antics, Paige struggles to fit in with her cohorts, eventually dying her mane blond and spraying on a golden tan.  Ultimately, it doesn’t take long for our heroine to realize she cannot be somebody she isn’t.

As Saraya’s father Ricky, Nick Frost plays a supporting role in this cheeky comedy, but his presence makes an unforgettable impression.  Wearing a shock of hair like a Mohawk Indian, Ricky is a motor-mouthed, down-to-earth, fellow.  One of his best bits occurs when he auditions an aspiring wrestler who must withstand a direct blow to the face with a garbage can lid.  Frost is contagiously hilarious, but he occasionally turns serious when Saraya isn’t sure about her future in wrestling.  The ensemble cast generates convincing charisma, and Saraya/Paige emerges triumphant despite her underdog status.  “Fighting with My Family” qualifies as a memorable domestic melodrama as well as a first-rate wrestling masterpiece. Check out other great Movie Reviews here.

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