Next Goal Wins (2023, dir. Taika Waititi)

by | Dec 21, 2023

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 104 mins

UK Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

UK Release Date: 26 December 2023

WHO’S IN NEXT GOAL WINS?

Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss, Uli Latukefu, Chris Alosio, Lehi Makisi Falepapalangi, Semu Filipo, Ioane Goodhue, Rhys Darby, Angus Sampson, Luke Hemsworth, Kaitlyn Dever, Hio Pelesasa, David Tu’itupou, Levy Tuiala, Loretta Ables Sayre, Frankie Adams, Taika Waititi

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Taika Waititi (director, writer, producer), Iain Morris (writer), Garrett Basch, Mike Brett, Jonathan Cavendish and Steven Jamison (producers), Michael Giacchino (composer), Lachlan Milne (cinematographer), Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, Nicholas Monsour and Nat Sanders (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The world’s worst football team gets a new coach (Fassbender)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON NEXT GOAL WINS?

For whatever reason, Taika Waititi seems to have soared to the top of a lot of people’s hate lists. While it’s true that Thor: Love and Thunder wasn’t very well-received by the Marvel fanbase (or most other viewers, for that matter), the New Zealand auteur still has a number of much more solid hits behind him, from his earlier work like Boy and Eagle vs. Shark to more recent critically acclaimed films like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as well as Jojo Rabbit which scored Waititi an Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Yet, seemingly because a hardcore fanbase didn’t care that much for one film, Waititi has become something of an online pariah, and I feel that diminishes the talent he clearly possesses to tell heartfelt stories with an irreverent comedic style.

Such talent, however, is not all that present in Waititi’s latest film Next Goal Wins, a dramatic adaptation of the 2014 documentary of the same name that certainly tries to keep its heart in the right place, but sadly can’t keep itself together.

The film, as in the documentary, charts the national football team of American Samoa, which is known for being the worst team in the history of the sport, a fact that was certified in 2001 with a record-breaking loss of 31-0 to Australia. The team’s manager, Tavita (Oscar Kightley), eventually hires Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), known for his volatile outbursts on the pitch which have just recently gotten him fired, to try and turn the team around, and the initially reluctant Rongen soon finds a way to tap into the passion of his incompetent players, and against all odds turn them into a winning unit.

From Waititi’s perspective, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a premise like this, since not only is there plenty of comedic potential from watching this team constantly lose and lose some more on the pitch, but it’s also the opportunity to explore an underrepresented South Pacific culture that’s not too far removed from the filmmaker’s own Polynesian roots. Unfortunately, Waititi appears to be more fixated on delivering the same brand of ironic humour that he’s more or less made his trademark, than he is with actually getting to the heart of both this premise and the culture surrounding it, both of which fall victim to oversimplification in the name of overly quippy banter.

The central premise, for one, is trapped within a typical sports movie template you’ve seen in films like The Mighty Ducks or The Bad News Bears – specifically the one where a dysfunctional coach is reluctantly brought in to turn a team of underperforming misfits into unexpected champions, and then learns to be a better person through said team’s courage and passion – but oddly, there never seems to be a point where it’s obvious that Waititi (and co-writer Iain Morris, who also co-created The Inbetweeners) is satirising the expected conventions. Instead, the writers seem to just be doing one of those films with little sense of self-awareness when it comes to this familiar structure. The film, therefore, plays out exactly as you’d expect it would, but with far too much of the filmmaker’s signature brand of comedy that reduces the real-life story to an episodic series of physical slapstick and tonally disruptive one-liners.

It’s a shame, because there is plenty to this story that is worthwhile exploring, most notably the fact that one of the team’s players, Jaiyah Saelua (played here by non-binary actor Kaimana), was the first transgender footballer to compete in an official competition qualifier. However, as likeable as Kaimana is in the part, Jaiyah in this film is written in a way that is not unlike, say, Mahershala Ali in Green Book, where she is clearly there as a pawn for the White cisgender saviour – in this case, Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Thomas Rongen, which is filled with plenty of misplaced intensity – to further his own dramatic arc while reducing hers to disappointingly basic attributes. I feel that this particular person has been greatly underserved by the way she is portrayed in this film, which resorts to some outdated tropes regarding trans characters and their acceptance by others who at first are entirely dismissive of their gender, which can make it a little uncomfortable to stomach.

As for the culture of American Samoa, the ways in which Waititi represent it here are odd. At first, it seems like the filmmaker wants the audience to point and laugh at how backwards they seem to be compared to the rest of the world (for instance, the speed limit is 20 miles per hour, and everyone stops whatever they’re doing in the middle of the day to silently pray), but then later on wants them to feel emotionally connected to it while still poking fun at the eccentricities of local customs. As if it weren’t caricaturist enough, Waititi himself pops up briefly (including as a fourth-wall breaking narrative device that never comes back into play, like the merchant at the beginning of Disney’s Aladdin) as a priest with a long moustache and exceptionally fake teeth, which again is confusing as the clown-ish way he is playing it seems to suggest that the viewer is supposed to be laughing at it rather than along with it. I doubt that was Waititi’s ultimate intention, but the way in which this whole thing comes off as weirdly mockable, makes it difficult to see it any other way.

There are times, though, when some of the lines do land a decent chuckle, and there is a sense of heart as it goes into the third act, set during a football match (because of course it does). However, the humour is largely incoherent, and not restrained enough to make the story and its representation stand out as much as they should, which leaves it more irritating than it is endearing. Taika Waititi may be divisive to some, especially in the aftermath of Thor: Love and Thunder, but in his earlier films he at least had the decency to reign in his own style in favour of developing the story and characters. In Next Goal Wins, he’s unfortunately lost sight of that, at the expense of turning this winning tale of terrible football into a somewhat misguided laughingstock.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Next Goal Wins sees filmmaker Taika Waititi turn the amusing real-life story of the notoriously terrible American Samoa football team into a heavily conventional sports comedy that underrepresents certain team members and the culture surrounding it in favour of unrestrained humour that is unsure whether to laugh at or with its subjects.

Two out of five stars

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