Kayfabe. A simple and strange word that will perhaps not have meaning for most people. Yet in the great history of professional wrestling, the term kayfabe was not just a code to live by, but a rule that could NEVER be broken. Put simply the secrecy of wrestlers personal lives and the portrayal of events in the wrestling world as real was a sacrosanct code of conduct essential to the DNA of the sport. That is of course until the rise of the internet… in fact just talking about kayfabe in this review is already a sign of how wrestling has evolved.
It is thus fascinating to see films emerge like Fighting with My Family, a biographical portrait of WWE superstar Paige and her rise to the top; this is a film that would never have been considered as a possibility even 20 years ago when adherence to kayfabe was still the law of the wrestling land. Yet despite the open secret of the predetermined nature of professional wrestling, there was still a suspension of disbelief of sorts that allowed fans to really buy into the storylines and occasionally over the top characters on the screen (who for instance would really believe in a supernatural Undertaker?)
But there really is no pretending anymore, with the curtain of kayfabe lifted in large part due to social media and the WWE’s attempts to cash in on what they have called “the Reality Era”.
Fighting with My Family is the latest film to be produced by WWE Studios (known for such infamous titles like The Marine, See No Evil, and The Condemned) but the first to profile a wrestler and in turn further lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the sport. At this point bemoaning the death of kayfabe would be redundant and so one can view this movie without fear of having wrestling ‘spoiled’ for them; that has been done for quite some time already even in such films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. An affectionate look at the other side of wrestling seldom before seen, as well as a celebration of one of wrestling’s unlikeliest champions, Fighting with My Family is a unique sports biography because in truth there has never been a feature film to profile a wrestler’s true life before.
The wrestler in question is Paige (the ring name of Saraya Bevis), a two-time Divas Champion in the WWE, who rose from proverbial humble beginnings in Norwich, England to the top of women’s wrestling. The child of wrestlers and sibling to two older brothers who also compete, it was obvious that Saraya’s destiny in life was to continue this family wrestling tradition; wrestling is as her brother Zak said: “in her blood”.
Following a successful tryout with WWE scouts, the newly named Paige embarks on the arduous physical and theatrical training process in the United States leaving her family behind, suddenly a little fish in a big pond. Although filled with a certain amount of cliches (Paige’s desire to quit when the training becomes too difficult, her brother’s jealousy, and the stranger in America theme), the movie is able to push forward thanks to its lead performances and its genuine embrace of the sacrifices needed to be a wrestler.
Wrestling here is not portrayed as some “fake” competition, but as a way of life, a reason for being, especially for Paige and her family. Like some of the greats in all sports, the desire to be the best and redefine the sport she grew up idolizing, is coupled with the family love affair why Paige continuously pushes herself to reach the always elusive mountaintop.
Featuring another stand out performance by Florence Pugh, Fighting with My Family not only tributes Paige but this awesome and wacky wrestling world even if it breaks kayfabe to do it. Pugh is impressive in tackling the physicality and athleticism the role requires, showcasing her acting versatility and wonderful charm. For viewers unaware of the real Paige, Florence Pugh’s performance will be sure to leave a positive impression of this raven-haired fighter.
Like many biopics, inaccuracies are sure to follow and this movie is no different. Timelines are occasionally incorrect and the recreation of events and matches are not always faithful to reality; the recreation of Paige’s debut match on Monday Night Raw for instance is very little like the real thing with commentary that sounds like it came straight from WWE videogames. While films like Bohemian Rhapsody may have been criticized for many things, at the very least its attention to detail in the Live Aid sequence set the bar quite high for historical recreation. There is no such detail recreated here with much stock footage of WWE events used. While it does not necessarily affect the film’s narrative, it makes one wonder why more attention wasn’t paid to these key matches and moments.
But ultimately Fighting with My Family succeeds in spite of its cliches and inaccuracies, because it celebrates with an open heart the professional wrestling industry and those who belong in it. Given Paige’s recent retirement due to numerous injuries, the movie can be viewed as a bit bittersweet, especially considering that she is still only 26 years old. In another time perhaps this film would be lambasted for very openly exposing kayfabe, but it shows itself not to be the cause of kayfabe’s weakened state, but rather a marker of how the wrestling world now views storylines.
While not a stand out sports biography, this is a movie that anchored by fine leads is able to differentiate itself enough from the genre. For fans, it’s an affirmation of the immense toll the life of a wrestler can be, while for newcomers it should shine a positive spotlight on a theatrical sport ignorantly labeled as fake. With kayfabe no longer a barrier between wrestlers and the outside world, Fighting with My Family shows there is indeed a promising future for cinema and wrestling to form a winning tag-team.