Based on the true story of WWE wrestler Paige’s rise to fame, Fighting with My Family is a charming love letter to, and apologia for, the aesthetics of professional wrestling. At the same time, writer-director Stephen Merchant’s portrait of his main character is almost entirely stitched together from a series of telegraphed moves. Fighting with My Family is essentially a comedy grafted onto a story of a woman’s athletic self-discovery, with a few unelaborated thoughts on wrestling’s theatrics sprinkled throughout.
Merchant’s film profiles the journey of Paige, née Raya Knight (Florence Pugh), from her roots in a wrestling-obsessed working-class family in Norwich, England to her explosive entrance into the WWE. She and her family—brother Zak (Jack Lowden), mother Julia (Lena Headey), and father Ricky (Nick Frost)—make their living fighting in their tiny, local wrestling league, mostly in half-filled community halls and back rooms around their corner of England. The film is nothing if not humane for its focus on their devotional passion for the sport. As Raya’s mom puts it at one point: “Some people find religion, I found wrestling.”
After Paige is selected for a WWE training program in Florida, and Zak is rejected, the film follows her struggles to make her family proud and get used to a sport whose standards don’t allow for her personal style: an unapologetically working-class and distinctly metal appearance. The road is hard and isolating for Paige, especially because of her guilt over Zak’s resentful downward spiral in response to his rejection by the WWE. But her ultimate struggle is to translate her regular personality into a character built for the ring.
Merchant’s screenplay gives a lightness to Paige and her off-kilter family’s dynamics, with the film hitting a comedic—sometimes over-earnestly corny—tone early on. Here, Frost and Headey dominate as a comedic tag team of sorts, highlighting the way Julia and Ricky used wrestling to turn their lives around. But as Fighting with My Family pivots to more overtly dramatic terrain, it’s Pugh’s performance that holds the film together. She illuminates how Paige carries herself with a plain vulnerability, neither overwrought nor muted, which lends a small but important affect to the young woman’s search for a comfortable identity.
The film foregrounds Paige’s behind-the-scenes experiences, namely her time in gyms, training rings, and hotels on the road. As such, Merchant effectively makes the world of pro wrestling feel almost comprehensible, even relatable, to the unwashed. At the same time, by downplaying the melodramatics of pro wrestling, Fighting with My Family comes to feel decidedly non-spectacular and anodyne. As hard as it is to make a film about professional wrestling without a good amount of smackdown—and, to be sure, the film has a fair amount of it—the usual, bluntly libidinal thrills of the sport feel muted here, even when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appears on screen to play a younger version of himself.
Paige’s own search for an authentic-seeming, in-ring persona mirrors the dynamic between performance and identity at work in pro wrestling. Her coach, Hutch (Vince Vaughn), is the didactic voice for the film’s defense of the complicated performances that go into the sport. He frequently lectures aspiring pro wrestlers about what the sport is really about: It’s not “fake,” as detractors never fail to point out, but “stylized,” a nuanced and open-ended interplay between character, narrative, and audience. For viewers less familiar with pro wrestling, these scenes may feel like being handed a syllabus. And rather than explicating these themes, Fighting with My Family falls prey to the sports biopic’s worst tendency: its harried attempt to condense its subject to a few easy-to-parse moments of struggle and triumph. Thus, while it pays lip service to the fascinating theatrical norms of pro wrestling, the film ends up expending most of its energy on its search for barriers that Paige can break through.
The depiction of Paige’s upset against WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee (played by actual wrestler Thea “Zeilna Vega” Trinidad) summarizes this rift in the subject matter. The actual 2014 showdown between the two began with Lee grandstanding. After she finished, Paige sauntered out in wrestling garb as if she were about to challenge Lee. But instead, she started meekly congratulating a champ she admired. In response, Lee suddenly pounced on her but was quickly pinned. It was a surprising, if hokey, performance that played up Paige’s weird-girl style and helped underline her persona’s central tension. But in the film’s staging of the scene, Paige is silent and frozen, awkwardly staring before Lee’s attack.
That difference is minor but illustrative. Having Paige fail to say anything, which hearkens to an earlier scene in Fighting with My Family where she also freezes up in the ring against a competitor, exists to amp up the personal drama of her match with AJ Lee. But it also effectively downplays what was, in real life, an interesting interplay between performance and stylized personhood—all in favor of squeezing in a final moment of triumph where Paige can claim her identity as a “freak from Norwich.” This scene feels all too typical in a film that never quite decides if Paige’s journey is one of self-performance or self-acceptance.
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, James Burrows, Zelina Vega Director: Stephen Merchant Screenwriter: Stephen Merchant Distributor: MGM Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child
The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.1.5
Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.
Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.
Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.
Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.
Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.
Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Iron Orchard Punishingly Leans into Nostalgia
Director Ty Roberts’s film is unable to realize that its subject matter is that of a horror story.1.5
Ty Roberts’s The Iron Orchard opens with—and often returns to—shots of the sun glinting behind rusty oil rigs on the dusty plains of West Texas. The film hallows the region’s mechanical “orchards,” collapsing the extraction of oil via industrialized labor into the agrarian notion of “working the land.” These montages of dormant rigs, used whenever the film otherwise lacks a coherent transition between scenes, fit into this representational schema: The rigs seem almost natural components of the landscape, as solid and eternal as trees. Though the film is set in the mid-20th century, its title-card preface proudly proclaims that the oil fields of West Texas’s Permian Basin “are still active today.”
If that phrase doesn’t fill you will utter dread, you’re either the mysterious target audience or one of the makers of The Iron Orchard, a film unable to realize its subject matter as that of a horror story. The simultaneously bland and detestable protagonist of Roberts’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story, Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison), is a poster boy for mid-century toxic masculinity, a macho oil tycoon who thrusts audiences into the Anthropocene epoch because a girl rejected him. In McNeely, the film honors the ambition of a “slave” (to which he compares himself) whose deepest desire is to become one of the brutal masters. It styles as heroic both his early brutal assault of a co-worker with a baseball bat and his later jovial projection to a business partner that “maybe someday I’ll need some good, cheap labor.”
Laying twangy plucked guitar chords beneath crane shots of McNeely cruising through Texas highways in vintage vehicles (too pristine to be anything but collectors’ items, circa 2018), The Iron Orchard leans into nostalgia, assuming we’ll mistake the world that McNeely’s building as belonging to anyone but him and his bros. He lands in West Texas in 1938 as a laborer for the Bison Oil Company, after the family of his well-to-do Fort Worth girlfriend, Mazie (Hassie Harrison), tells him to make something of himself. In the film’s first act, whenever a motivation for McNeely’s bald arrogance and arbitrary petulance is lacking, The Iron Orchard flashes back to overexposed images of this painful rejection. Later, when McNeely is happily married to Lee (Ali Cobrin) and managing his own oil fields, the flashbacks are suddenly of his being bullied in school, as the film scrambles to find new excuses for his autocratic behavior.
While still working Bison’s fields, McNeely seduces the married Lee, in a series of scenes that should—given that the film’s thin dramatic arc will concern the ups and downs in their marriage—firmly establish their chemistry and mutual attraction. Instead, their romance consists of car rides peppered with superficial small talk-isms, whose quiet moments feel less pregnant with bourgeoning affection and more like awkward silences between two actors waiting for their next line. Appropriately, the finale to this courtship is an uncomfortable scene in which McNeely makes a move on Lee in her car, only to be shoved away as Lee voices her discomfort. This discomfiting scene is the last featuring both characters before, a few minutes later, McNeely declares: “I did it. I married her.”
McNeely puts Lee through the emotional wringer in typical great-man fashion, encountering Mazie again in polite society just as he’s beginning to indulge in the excesses of oil-tycoon life. The film’s narrative trajectory from this point is obvious, but Roberts and co-screenwriter Gerry De Leon fail to establish any true stakes throughout: Lee and McNeely’s romance is unconvincing from the start so it’s hard to feel anything when she discovers his inevitable betrayal; the film treats his naked greed as a neutral trait, choosing neither to imbue it with consistent motivations or treat it with a distinctive angle; and the exclusive society to which he gains access with his wealth is so insipid as to make one ponder its attraction. Lee unknowingly articulates our feeling when, during the rift in her marriage, she confesses to her parents that McNeely is “just trying to be a part of something that…I just don’t care about.”
Cast: Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin, Austin Nichols, Lew Temple, Hassie Harrison Director: Ty Roberts Screenwriter: Gerry De Leon, Ty Roberts Distributor: Santa Rita Film Co. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Wrestle’s Triumph Is Its Unmistakable Humanity
The documentary shines a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget.2.5
In the wake of Hoop Dreams, documentaries following the travails of under-privileged teenage athletes have become a genre unto themselves. In these films, institutions are ambiguously critiqued as well as often implicitly endorsed, as we come to share in blossoming adults’ efforts to win by playing by rules that generally don’t serve them. In each such documentary, we hope that we’re watching one of the exceptions to the pattern of casualties beget by the racial, classist strictures of this country—a hope that embodies the insidiously self-negating pull of capitalism. And this form of suspense quietly drives director Suzannah Herbert and co-director Lauren Belfer’s Wrestle.
For Wrestle, Herbert and Belfer filmed hundreds of hours of footage of four teen wrestlers on the J.O. Johnson High School team in Huntsville, Alabama. We learn that Johnson is a failing high school with low test scores and graduation rates, and so the new wrestling team, headed by young social studies teacher Chris Scribner, is an attempt to offer students direction and to allow the school to achieve a measure of self-respect. This information is introduced too casually, as one craves more context as to how Scribner sold his hopeless superiors on this team, particularly in a school that’s in threat of being defunded.
Herbert and Belfer home in on four of Scribner’s athletes: Jailen, Jamario, Teague, and Jaquan. Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are African-American, and wrestle with issues of neglectful parents, teen pregnancy, drug use, and indifference to the rules that various white people insist they follow for their own good. It’s in dramatizing this last point that Wrestle proves to be most evocative, especially in terms of defining the athletes’ relationship with Scribner, who’s Caucasian. Scribner’s aware of his white privilege, though it often gets the better of him anyway, such as when he repeatedly calls Jamario “bro” as if he’s the young man’s peer.
In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Jamario and Scribner almost get into a fight on the school’s grounds. To his credit, Scribner maintains his cool and talks Jamario down, but this encounter illustrates the distinct gulf of experience between coach and pupil. And this gulf is reaffirmed when a cop harasses and threatens to jail Jailen for public urination. Aware of the camera, the cop seems most concerned with Jailen’s “disrespect,” which is admirably contained given the circumstances, because Jailen knows that manners are a matter of life and death between black men and the police. Meanwhile, Jamario and Jaquan’s mothers—heavy, tough, impervious to bullshit—try to help Scribner keep their children on the straight and narrow. This is another thread that Wrestle should’ve elaborated upon: What do black women think of allowing a white man to assume a pseudo-parental role in their sons’ lives?
Jailen, Jamario, and Jaquan are commanding and photogenic, stealing the filmmakers’ attention away from Teague, a white teenager who reflects the path that Scribner was in danger of treading. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Scribner empathizes all too well with Teague, who’s constantly lectured for getting high before school functions. Teague embodies the recessive-ness of substance abuse, which isn’t acknowledged much by pop culture. Even when on screen, he rarely seems present, as he appears to be lost in his anger and hungers—though these emotions drive him to achieve a few startling victories on the mat.
Wrestle has a lovely, scruffy, wandering quality, and individual anecdotes are vivid, such as when Jamario learns of his daughter being born during his high school graduation, for which he fought hard to achieve. But Wrestle doesn’t have the spellbinding flow of Minding the Gap or especially of Hoop Dreams, and it may make you wish that the strictures and challenges of J.O. Johnson itself had been more specifically established, especially in light of a potent bit of information that’s revealed in the text before the end credits. Herbert and Belfer, though, do shine a piercing light on the sorts of people that our governments would too often rather forget, justifying indifference with various infrastructural metrics designed to cloud the human cost involved. In Wrestle, that humanity comes roaring to the surface.
Director: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer Screenwriter: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer, Pablo Proenza