The WWE, back when it was known as WWF and there was no animal-based confusion, was the home of grown men in neon tights and face masks, wrestling other grown men in neon tights and face masks to respectable crowds in modest arenas. The World Wrestling Federation became World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. and, as the ‘inc’ would suggest, is now a billion-dollar, global-crowd-drawing enterprise. The men in tights have been joined by women in tights and one of the most well-known female performers of recent years is Paige — real name Saraya-Jade Bevis — a Norwich-born performer and daughter of the infamous family of wrestlers, the Knights.
Parents Patrick ‘Rowdy Ricky Knight’ (Nick Frost) and Julia ‘Sweet Saraya’ (Lena Headey) are obsessed with wrestling, running a local gym and putting on scrappy events. It’s an obsession passed down to their kids including Raya (Florence Pugh) and Zak ‘Zodiac’ (Jack Lowden) — “We’re riddled,” says Zak (“That’s not good,” retorts Raya. “You make it sound like hepatitis”). But cracks start to appear when the two attend try-outs for the WWE and only Raya — who takes on the wrestling name of Paige – is taken to Florida to train for the main roster.
Jack Lowden elevated the film beyond an average British heartwarmer.
The sweet, authentic, funny family dynamic is the steady heartbeat of the film — zeroing in on the emotional narrative of a working-class family — rather than the prison sentences and unplanned pregnancies, which feels like something of a revelation. It’s Jack Lowden as Zak who elevates the film beyond an average British heartwarmer with a performance of real power. He’s the man who was once the boy that could name every WWE wrestler just from looking at their boot. His desire is tangible, his desperation devastating and his unravelling provides some much-needed dramatic oomph.
Somewhat frustratingly, this isn’t matched by Florence Pugh as Raya/Paige. Not due to any lack of ability — Pugh is one of the finest young British actors working today — but you sense a lack of material. Her character is constructed from broad brushstrokes and you never truly get a sense of what drives her and what her fears and insecurities look like. Pugh imbues her with charm, defiance and brief splashes of vulnerability, but you are still left feeling dissatisfied with what little you really know of her as a wrestler and as a woman.
The film becomes most interesting in its exploration of the tension between the megabucks, sunshine-drenched world of American wrestling and the spit-and-sawdust British variant. Dwayne Johnson/The Rock appears in a funny if hammy cameo as the Knight kids first step into the world of WWE. There is a marked tonal contrast with later scenes as the gap between the siblings grows and we join Zak backstage as he gingerly picks drawing pins out of his back under a harsh, bare lightbulb.
But it’s Paige who we follow as she struggles with the brutal reality of the glossy American world — something played out through her relationship with WWE coach Hutch (a fairly underwhelming Vince Vaughn). Sadly, she never punches through the tropes of the standard sport biopic and the film — especially in the final half an hour — relies on convenient narrative leaps to follow its triumphant underdog story through to its natural conclusion.