Writer/director Taika Waititi returns to the big screen after his Oscar-winning screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, with an amusing and even heartwarming tale of impossibly lovable losers in the world of international soccer. In Next Goal Wins, Waititi presents an amusing dramedy that follows a disgraced national couch outcast to the boondoggles of what most of the world calls football—American Samoa. He must make them a respectable team, or else. And though the self-centered Waititi is not by any means a great filmmaker – prior, inexplicable accolades notwithstanding – Next Goal Wins proves that he can at least be an effective one when he returns to simpler basics.
The premise of Next Goals Wins is simple—the American Samoan soccer team is super bad, and risk expulsion from the disreputable FIFA altogether. They are so bad, that at some point prior, they lost infamously 0-31 against regional rival Australia. The film’s opening elides that this ignominious event took place ten years prior to the action, but who’s counting, particularly considering the team barely has a qualified group of players in the present day as well.
Enter Thomas Rongen, an irritable, at times aggressive Dutch coach played by Michael Fassbender. Rongen has a checkered professional and personal past, sharing tremendous loss with his estranged wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss, underused), who also happens to head the federation of FIFA in control of Rongen’s assignments. The entire review—and certainly the entire film—could be jokes about FIFA’s corruption, but Waititi—who directs, writes, and produces the film—goes elsewhere.
Rongen arrives in the remote location, and you can expect the sort of “mock the natives” jokes that will follow. Waititi is a Pacific-Islander, so presumably it is permitted for him to make these cultural references. It takes several plane rides to get to the island, which is so small that the interim coach of the team Tavita (Oscar Kightley) also serves as the local store manager, the taxicab driver at the airport, and a local cop. The people are so uncouth and unkempt, that madness always follows. They are adoring, but provincial. Innocent, but somewhat savage. The jokes about the bigger, badder cousin, “Samoa,” also abound. That’s without even getting into the players themselves, a veritable array of misfits that cannot shoot to save themselves.
Chief among them is Jaiyah Saelua (played by Kaimana). Saelua and the star who portrays the character are both “fa’afafine,” a third gender present in Polynesian society. Saelua’s presence in the film serves various roles, including as the most likable character, an incredible historical reference, and ultimately both the foil and conscience for the irascible Rongen. Again, all of this is extremely clichéd and predictable, but Waititi has nothing if not an amusing, at times physical, at times sarcastic sense of humor, and it all works enough to keep the smiles coming.
At the core of Next Goal Wins’ plot is the team’s desire to score a single goal, having failed to ever do so in professional competition. A very preliminary qualifying game for the 2014 World Cup approaches against hated rival Tonga, where even a single goal will stop the federation from eliminating the game at this charming little island. As you can also expect, Fassbender as Rongen takes them up and down the jungle-like mountains of the South Pacific, introduces foot drills, and teaches them team bonding. The expected match arrives, and there are locker room speeches, close calls, and flirtations with heartbreaking defeat.
Again, as you may have surmised, Next Goal Wins is in many ways a paint-by-numbers sports triumph movie. The most unique of its elements is Saelua, who without question livens up the proceedings, and Fassbender adds a more comedic dimension to his somewhat more dramatic acting tilt. Techwise, nothing in particular stands out, beyond perhaps the playful score by Michael Giacchino.
The truth is that the knives were out for Waititi before the Searchlight Pictures logo faded by the screen. In 2019, I watched in horror as the film world fell all over itself fawning for a director that had little to offer beyond juvenile takes on Marvel films and a shockingly tone-deaf Holocaust comedy. I thought those were a thing of a more impolite past, but apparently they are permitted to those who otherwise tell the would-be censors of morality what they want to hear. In short, Waititi offered little and represents a lot of what is wrong with the current state of audience and critical interaction with Hollywood today. It was clear as soon as the Oscar was handed to him that buyers’ remorse would kick in, with a vengeance.
Here, it already has. Next Goal Wins will be a crowd-pleasing film, despite the expected critical skewering, because it takes a winning formula and adapts it to an endearing story. The film and its eccentric director are at its best when they are predictable, sufficiently funny, and dedicated to their own message. When it strays, even a little, from the pattern one expects from these stories, it quickly falters out of bounds. Thankfully, Waititi is a bit nimbler on his feet this time around, always bringing himself back to the field of respectability.
It is safe to say that it will not be a spoiler to anyone that the American Samoa team did not ultimately win the 2014 World Cup. But the destination was in the journey, and the lessons of growth and determination that they experience during their qualification is in some ways just as memorable. Next Goal Wins is just like that American Samoa team—it may not win the World Cup at the box office or awards this year, but being just OK is just enough.
Awards Potential: None
Box Office Potential: Medium
Renewability: None, unless American Samoa wins the Next World Cup
Overall Score: B
Next Goal Wins had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, and it will be released by Searchlight Pictures on November 17, 2023.
Studio: Searchlight Pictures
Principal Cast: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Producers: Jonathan Cavendish, Garrett Basch, Taika Waititi, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison
DP: Lachlan Milne
Production Design: Ra Vincent
Costume Design: Miyako Bellizzi
Editor: Nicholas Monsour
Score: Michael Giacchino