Dwayne Johnson and Vince Vaughn star in “Fighting with My Family.” Robert Viglasky/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Film is engaging, charismatically acted underdog tale

The more globally famous the celebrity, the tougher audiences tend to be on a biopic. Unless it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” because, you know. All those hits.

A different sort of hit-making and punishment-taking sets the tone in “Fighting with My Family,” based on a true story. It’s not a story, or a milieu, I knew anything about going in. In other words, nothing much held me back from enjoying writer-director Stephen Merchant’s engaging, charismatically acted underdog fable.

Best known as a performer, Merchant has a serious knack for casting. He snagged Nick Frost and Lena Headey as the heads of a scrappy, resourceful Norwich, England, wrestling clan. The excellent young actor Jack Lowden (“‘71,” “Dunkirk”) captures the essence of thwarted ambition as son Zak.

And in the lead, the superb Florence Pugh (“Lady Macbeth”) takes on the World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. star known as Paige. Offstage she’s Saraya-Jade Bevis, now 26. On screen in “Fighting with My Family,” as played byPugh, she’s a tough, continually underestimated striver, with the eye of the tiger and a heart of gold.

Merchant takes the sports biopic cliches just seriously enough. His adaptation, inspired by the (credited) 2012 British documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family,” streamlines events so that the plot stays close to the sister/brother dynamics. The Britain we see here is one of gray skies, council houses and pints at the pub, consumed prior to the next available brawl.

The Knight family makes a living in the wrestling game, fully into the theatrics but serious about the skill required. Paige gets her shot through tryouts with the WWE’s developmental league. Brother Zak doesn’t make the cut and returns to Norwich, where he trains kids (including a blind wrestler-to-be) in the ring. Paige, unencumbered by relationships or domestic concerns, is stuck with only her loneliness.

Some of the writing’s fresh and spiky, as when one of Paige’s American cohorts gushes over her accent (“You sound like a Nazi in a movie!”). Other parts are more expedient and frankly hokey. Any five minutes of the 2012 documentary on the Knights shows you that the real people this movie’s based on are more rough-edged, and pungently compelling, than their comfortably scruffy movie counterparts. Still, it all feels true enough for the movies, if you know what I mean.

The whole film is an entertaining gloss on the truth. Pugh quietly invests every moment with a strong current of feeling, as do Frost and Headey. These people are neither angels or thugs, though two of the main characters have known prison time, and a third looks as though he may be heading there himself. They’re entertainers and entrepreneurs. And they’re lively company.


“Fighting With My Family”

Grade: B

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Florence Pugh and Vince Vaughn. Directed by Stephen Merchant.

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 48 hours.

Bottom line: An enjoyable tale based on a true story

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.