Two kids wrestle for the T.V. remote. A young boy wishes to watch his idol Dwayne Johnson, back when he had a surplus of hair and was the sans pareil of the wrestling world. The sister, a fighting spirit herself, isn’t going to give up her beloved “Charmed” without a few punches thrown. It’s a wonderful opening scene, made all the more charming by the interference from dad. “Zak… what the bloody hell do you think you’re doing” he bellows. (Nick Frost plays the mohawked father with unswerving compassion). “If you really want to choke her out, go like this” he passionately instructs his son, who now has his little sister in a choke-hold. Most parents wish for their kids to be lawyers, but the Knights have other plans. These two proud parents want nothing more than for their kids to kick ass in the ring.
We are never told who won, but it’s the sister who steps out of life’s ring triumphant. In Stephen Merchant’s tender underdog story, a rare sub-genre example that boasts brains and brawn, you will get the chance to watch a luminous soul transcend lofty lows to achieve soaring highs. It’s your basic underdog formula, but even the formula here seems fresh.
Thanks to the specifications of the oddly lovable Knights. Barbara Busch may have been on to something when she said “Family means putting your arms around each other and being there.” Though this rambunctious family does more than merely put their arms around each other. They fight with swinging elbows and humorous low-blows. Putting on weekly wrestling showcases in the quaint English town of Norwich, mom (Lena Heady) and dad (Frost) sell merchandise from the sidelines, as Zak (Jack Lowden) and Paige (Florence Pugh) duel it out in the ring. “It’s not fake, it’s staged” they argue with the locals. And these two have dreams of making it to the big stage, where ironically everything is staged, just bigger.
Fittingly, Merchant seems to have staged his film with the typical genre conventions. Everything in the script is calculated: the star starts from the bottom, works their way up, then finds things harder than they could have ever imagined in a perilous second act, and in the closing moments, displays a feat of transcendence that has us leaving the theater smiling and inspired. And, as expected, there will be punches thrown and lessons learned along the way.
That said, there is still a lot of fun to be had here. Having got the call from the WWE, they fly out to Florida where they meet Dwayne Johnson playing himself, and hard-knocks trainer Vince Vaughn playing a version of himself from “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”. This brings the best out of Merchant’s diverting wit. You might have found it odd that the brains behind the U.K. “Office” was to direct a “based on a true story” wrestling picture, but his cheery rapport seems right at home with this family, especially in their ethical disconnect with the outside world. Scenes where the families unapologetic vulgarity clashes with the manners of the side-characters are particularly funny.
But this cultural divide isn’t just funny. Dejection is permitted too. Once Zak is kicked out, Paige is all alone, and clearly different from the barbie-like models she trains with. Will she be able to be herself? Will being herself sell? We know the answers are “Yes” and “Yes”, but that doesn’t stop the film from packing an emotional punch. With fleshed out characters and layered performances–Florence Pugh commands the screen as she did in “Lady Macbeth”– the movie provides a sentimental smackdown about family that outshines its familiarity. Sure, the second act is treacherous. I would rather step in the ring with The Rock than sit through that emotional beatdown again.
But even then, Merchant knows how to counter with scenes of uplift. How to inspire by letting us befriend this goth-dressed outcast. She’s confident yet reserved, determined yet scared, loving yet ruthless, and in the end, she’s human. And therefore engaging. Still, I wouldn’t recommend fighting over the T.V. remote with her. Do yourself a favor and pick up a book before she unleashes the “paigeturner”.