It’s the new year and we’re back with a brand-new installment of Roles in Retrospect! This month, I’ve decided to focus on a lesser-known film from an actress who has landed on many people’s radar as of late— Florence Pugh. Thanks to her recent scene-stealing turn as quippy assassin Yelena Belova in Marvel’s Black Widow and Hawkeye, Pugh is undoubtedly one of the most talked-about stars right now. The English actress became an instant film Twitter icon after starring in Ari Aster’s 2019 horror Midsommar, then went on to be adored for her performance in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. It’s the latter of these where I first saw Pugh shine on-screen, greatly enjoying her portrayal of Amy March. The brash confidence and charisma she brings to Amy makes her a standout amongst the cast, and even earned her an Academy Award nomination. However, there’s another film often left out of the conversation that was released earlier the same year, and features one of Pugh’s best performances to date.
While the biopic Fighting with My Family came out in 2019, I didn’t get around to watching it until the beginning of this year. I actually decided to check it out on Pugh’s birthday (January 3rd!), seeing as that felt like the perfect time to explore more of her filmography. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film since it didn’t sound like one that would interest me had it not been for her involvement. But after watching Pugh take on the role of Saraya “Paige” Knight, I just knew that her performance in Fighting with My Family had to be the next role spotlighted in this column. Saraya is a very different character than the others who we know Pugh for. With jet-black hair and a gothic look complete with a lip piercing — as well as an English accent — she’s loud, foul-mouthed, and unapologetic for who she is. She’s also from a family of wrestlers, and has been an active participant in the sport herself since she was just 13 years old.
In the hands of a less capable actress, Saraya could have easily become a one-dimensional stereotype. However, Pugh’s portrayal of the young up-and-coming wrestler makes her feel truly human. After she gets chosen over her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) to pursue the career opportunity of a lifetime, Saraya initially fights back against the decision. She reacts with aggression and intimidation, a defensive approach that stems from her fierce devotion to her family. Once we see Saraya on her own though, it becomes apparent that beneath the tough front she puts up, there’s an extremely vulnerable side to her. This is especially evident when she finds herself feeling insecure amongst the other girls, viewing conformity as a way to further her chances of success. Pugh sells Saraya’s desperation while also approaching her with an earnest tenacity that makes the blows she suffers all the more crushing and her victories well-earned. Her character is someone you can’t help but root for, both in and out of the ring.
There’s a moment near the end of the film that sees Saraya really come into her own as her wrestling persona Paige, visibly tearing up as she delivers a passionate speech. It’s a powerful moment filled with heart, and it’s easy for the audience to believe that she means every word of it. After watching Saraya grapple with various obstacles leading up to that point — including her own sense of self-worth — the scene sticks its emotional landing, making Fighting with My Family worth seeing through. If you’re already a fan of Pugh, then you’re sure to love her here. And if you haven’t seen any of Pugh’s work but want to watch an enjoyable sports drama (which also features a fun Dwayne Johnson cameo), then chances are good that you’ll walk away being a fan of her too.