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‘Fighting With My Family’: Uplifting comedy follows clan with WWE ambitions

Florence Pugh stars as a British wrestling fan eager to join the WWE in "Fighting With My Family." | MGM

Every scene in the wrestling comedy/drama “Fighting With My Family” has been mapped out in advance, and everybody in this movie is in reality an actor playing a part.

That’s right — it’s all scripted.

I know. Shocker.

You might also find “Fighting With My Family” predictable if you’re a fan (as I am) of the classic inspirational underdog-sports movie, whether pure fiction a la “Rocky” or “The Karate Kid,” or all those based-on-a-true-story tales such as “Rudy” and “Hoosiers.”

No matter if nearly every moment is as familiar and comfortable as your favorite blanket. As the obligatory crusty-but-caring coach played by Vince Vaughn says to the professional wrestling hopefuls: Sure, there’s a storyline to be followed, but you gotta be able to sell that story, and you need something special if you’re going to win over the crowd.

In “Fighting With My Family,” the instantly likable Florence Pugh has the chops to sell the story of the real-life WWE Diva known as Paige, and along with a supporting cast led by Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her parents and Jack Lowden as her older brother — not to mention writer-director Stephen Merchant’s funny and touching screenplay and his solid work behind the camera — this group has more than enough spark and sparkle to win over the crowd.

I loved hanging out with this movie, even when we were getting training sequences straight out of “An Officer and a Gentlemen”; tough-love speeches from the coach a la the aforementioned “Rocky” et al; the good ol’ standby of a dinner scene featuring uptight, oh-so-proper guests meeting a crude and cussing family, and even a couple of shameless cutaway shots to the family dog reacting to events probably no dog would be able to comprehend. It’s just a big bowl of uplifting fun.

Based on the true story of the wrestling Bevis family (renamed the Knight family) as chronicled in the 2012 documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with my Family,” the movie chronicles the unlikely journey of the teenage Raya (Pugh). We follow her story from working with her family as part of a local, small-time family grappling entourage in Norwich, England, to her big break — a coveted tryout for the WWE in the States.

Nick Frost and Lena Headey are a winning pair as Paige’s parents. He’s an ex-con who did eight years (“mostly for violence, but there was some robbery, too”) while she was an addict with thoughts of ending it all before they found each other — and found salvation through their mutual love of wrestling. (As you’ll see in the closing credits footage, Frost and Headey captured not only the general appearances but the spirited personalities of Paige’s folks.)

Nick Frost and Lena Headey star as the girl’s supportive parents in “Fighting With My Family.” | MGM
Nick Frost and Lena Headey star as the girl’s supportive parents in “Fighting With My Family.” | MGM

Jack Lowden does fine work as Paige’s older brother Zak, who has always been his sister’s best friend and mentor but is crushed when she is selected for a tryout camp in Florida and he doesn’t make the cut. Vaughn does his Vince Vaughn thing and rarely opts for anything approaching subtlety, but he’s well-cast as the coach/instructor who decides who will get a shot at the big time and who needs to go home.

Writer-director Merchant (who has a small part in the film), a co-writer and co-director of the original “The Office,” among other collaborations with Ricky Gervais, certainly knows how to mine laughs from his script, whether it’s broad physical shtick or dryly funny one-liners. What comes as a bit of a surprise is how often “Fighting With My Family” is genuinely moving, and how a handful of seemingly stock characters turn out to be something … well, something more.

Dwayne Johnson is his usual magnetic and self-deprecating screen presence playing Dwayne Johnson, who has become a big movie star but remains connected to the WWE. (When Paige and Zak meet the Rock for the first time and Zak says he’s been a fan since the Rock had hair, Johnson snaps back that the bald look “is a choice.”)

Johnson is a producer of “Fighting With My Family,” and the WWE Studios were involved in the production, so yes, the movie is a celebration of an enormously popular form of mass entertainment, with only passing mention of the tolls it has taken on many a wrestler. (Just because the moves are orchestrated and punches are pulled doesn’t mean those athlete/entertainers don’t sustain all manner of serious injuries.)

“Fighting With My Family” works as a cheeky but never condescending story of one of those “chin-up” working-class British families so often featured in the movies, and of course primarily as the story of an undersized, overmatched outcast who is determined to succeed against all odds.

It’s quite a trick to pull off such an authentic sports movie about a world in which every match really IS fixed.

‘Fighting With My Family’

1⁄2

MGM presents a film written and directed by Stephen Merchant. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual material, language throughout, some violence and drug content). Running time: 107 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.