*This article contains minor spoilers*
Professional wrestling is probably the biggest entertainment industry you don’t care about. Tens of thousands of people watch WWE’s annual spring super-show WrestleMania in person every year and the company’s television flagships – Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live – have each aired more episodes than any other weekly show in American history. Despite this, most people’s responses when wrestling comes up is to adopt a condescending tone and declare: “You know it’s fake, right?”
The response to that question is one of the most refreshing things about new movie Fighting with My Family. It tells the story of real WWE star, Paige, who rose through the ranks of the business to become WWE’s top female champion, despite modest roots working for her family’s wrestling company in Norwich. An early dinner table chat is rendered awkward when the F word arises, with the family frostily replying that they prefer to say their work is “scripted”.
There’s no doubt that wrestling’s relationship with fiction is an unusual one. Today’s industry figures are more than willing to discuss the inner workings of the business and often give interviews out of character. WWE’s chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon – daughter of boss Vince – even states in her Twitter bio that she’s a “TV villain”, drawing a clear line between the manipulative monster she portrays on screen and the philanthropist businesswoman she becomes when the cameras are switched off.
Historically, though, that distinction has been less clear and more secretive – and it is perhaps this that has kept wrestling largely away from the multiplex. Wrestlers are prominent in modern cinema, from the all-consuming fame of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – who plays himself in Fighting with My Family, as well as being exec producer – to Dave Bautista and John Cena. Yet the art form itself is avoided, even while dozens of movies are made about boxing, baseball and just about every other sporting or entertainment pursuit. A biopic of the aforementioned Vince McMahon has repeatedly stalled, and a Hulk Hogan movie, seemingly as big a pop culture no-brainer as it’s possible to imagine, is only just getting going over at Netflix.
Those wrestling movies that actually do get made tend to fit into three distinct camps. There are non-fiction efforts, like Beyond the Mat and The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, on which the new film is based, which delve into the backstage world, shattering the notion of “kayfabe” – a term supposedly derived from carnival speak that describes the portrayal of predetermined events as legitimate. These are movies that, by and large, appeal only to wrestling fans.
The second group is fictional wrestling movies that attempt to maintain kayfabe and keep their stories upbeat. Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre focused on Mexican wrestling, known as “lucha libre”, and portrayed its fights as legitimate, rather than predetermined. Last year’s risible British comedy Walk Like a Panther, meanwhile, seemed unsure whether to focus on the real inner workings of the business or create a fictionalised world in which the fighting is real. As a result, it was awkwardly caught between the truth and the illusion.
Reality is the heart of the final category, which includes films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler – one of the best films ever made about the art form. These fictionalised films acknowledge the scripted nature of wrestling. The Wrestler, indeed, derives its central theme from contrasting the broken down body and fractured private life of Mickey Rourke’s character with the uncomplicated hero he portrays. These movies are almost always bleak, because the wrestling world is seemingly incompatible with the inspiring underdog template. If they have been chosen to win beforehand, what odds do they have to overcome? Hollywood likes its sporting movies to be neat, which is the opposite of how this art form works.
The genius of Fighting with My Family is that it finds a way to fit into that third category and its realistic depiction of wrestling, while maintaining the exciting underdog narrative of the second group. The fakery of wrestling is never a secret in the film, but Paige is so obviously a fish out of water in America that she feels like an underdog from the start. While she has the most wrestling experience of the trainees around her, her pale skin, Norfolk accent and unconventional look makes her a less likely pick for mainstream success than the fitness models who form her peer group.
The rousing finale of the underdog story is not the moment in which she holds the WWE Divas Championship – it has thankfully been rebranded as the Women’s Championship in the years since – aloft in the ring. It’s the moment when she is told by Johnson, playing himself, that she has been chosen to win. The depiction of the match itself is just the icing on the cake – a victory lap in which Paige is able to show that she has the skills to justify the company’s faith in her talent.
Fighting with My Family is a rare and delightful beast: a movie that seems to understand the world of professional wrestling. By acknowledging the fundamental weirdness of over-cranked personalities and choreographed combat, it is able to tell a traditional sporting underdog story against the most unconventional of backdrops.