British comedy with a big heart and a potty mouth smacks down with an all-American hero story in smashing wrestling biopic Fighting With My Family, but it’s the glorious rise of 23-year-old star Florence Pugh that’s the real knockout.
It’s the first solo writing/directing gig for Stephen Merchant, who co-created The Office with Ricky Gervais, and tells the true story of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) big hitter Paige.
Pugh takes the lead role of Saraya Knight, whose wrestling stage name is Paige, a two-time female wrestling champion who made her debut in 1992 at the age of 13, and became the youngest female champion of the sport at the age of 21.
With her entire family obsessed with wrestling’s Lycra-clad theatrics – including mum Julia (Game of Thrones’ villainous Cersei, Lena Heady), dad Ricky (Nick Frost, Shaun of the Dead) and big bro Zak (Jack Lowden, Dunkirk) – a young Saraya has little choice but to follow in faux furious suit.
Their combined efforts running a scrappy gym are as much about making (not much) money as they are about forging community spirit by helping keep kids off the streets, out of drug deals and aiding a blind boy to beat the living daylights out of narrow expectations.
When the opportunity to compete in a WWE talent scouting session in London presents itself, complete with executive producer Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson playing his larger-than-life self, it seems their futures will kick into high gear.
But the bond between Saraya and Zak ends up on the ropes when she gets signed, setting off for boot camp in Florida, leaving Zak behind.
What this real-life rags-to-riches tale lacks in originality (echoing documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family) it more than makes up for with the one-two punch of brilliant performances and spot-on comic timing.
An incandescent screen presence, Pugh is magnificent.
Right from the outset, she was a revelation as rebel soul Abigail in The Falling, a slow-burn 2014 mystery from English writer/director Carol Morley.
Three years later she took home Best Actress at the 2017 British Independent Film Awards for her stunning turn in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth.
That led to a role as Cordelia in Amazon Prime’s King Lear, helmed by Richard Eyre. She also played would-be queen Elizabeth Burgh to Chris Pine’s Scottish hero Robert the Bruce in David Mackenzie’s bloody Netflix hit Outlaw King.
Pugh wowed audiences as an actor recruited to infiltrate the deadly plans of a Palestinian assassin in AMC miniseries The Little Drummer Girl from Korean master Park Chan-Wook.
While Fighting With My Family might be lighter fare, it absolutely affirms her leading lady status, burning up the screen whether she’s playing a scheming murderer or a fish-out-of-water goth girl trying to find her niche amid bronzed bikini-clad goddesses.
In high demand, she’ll appear next in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women remake and Marvel’s long-delayed Black Widow, by Australian director Cate Shortland.
Ding ding, we know she’ll knock them out of the ring.
Fighting With My Family was released in cinemas across Australia on Thursday