As written and directed by Stephen Merchant, Fighting With My Family is a great fit for his first feature. Creating awkward public failures and social faux pas’ are skills he’s spent the 21st century mastering, and Soraya’s time in the US is ripe with opportunity for these as she clashes with her competitors and her coach, played by Vince Vaughn. Back home, Zak’s story seems like it could be the backstory of a character from the Office, like he had big ambitions and took a job in a paper company to pay the bills and now fifteen years have gone by. Despite the joviality of the Knight parents, there’s a sadness hanging over the Norwich scenes, like the big barrel laughs are holding back depression.
Whatever Merchant’s considerable strengths, the heavy hand of the WWE is hard to ignore. Vaughn has a melancholy monologue speaking vaguely about failed wrestlers, and it’s shocking that the WWE allowed it to be included. The spoken details of steroid use and painkillers for little reward, however, don’t enter into any onscreen action, as if the viewer is only supposed to imagine the downside and experience the upside. The film also does a poor job of explaining why Soraya is a good fit for the WWE, as she never cracks her character or develops a capable stage patter. The obvious heel turn, where she’s a stuck-up Englishwoman, isn’t entertained, perhaps out of a reluctance to skewer the WWE fan base’s xenophobia or maybe just an unwillingness to make one of their stars a bad guy. There’s a moment late in the film where the film flirts with maturity, as Soraya could potentially be waking up from a dream that she was fed since infancy instead of developed on her own, but that’s not this movie. The WWE isn’t going to back a film about a person turning their back on wrestling.
Even with those considerable caveats, Merchant and company know what they’re doing. Fighting With My Family is stuffed with performances and grace notes, all of which make it easy to go along for the sponsored ride. Headey, now finished with Game of Thrones, needs to take more comedic jobs based on her work here. Pugh is a capable lead, willing to appear unlikable in moments while always being a credible athlete. Lowden plays a spectrum of shades, throwing himself into the role of youth wrestling coach in the film’s warmest moments and also briefly becoming its scariest monster. As for Soraya’s competitors, it would’ve been very easy for Merchant to cast them as mere pretty faces in Soraya’s way, but the film reserves a surprising amount of humanity for them. Fighting With My Family might be branded content, but it’s more in the vein of the LEGO Movie than the Playmobil Movie. C+