Consider the fortunes of Taika Waititi in just the last five years. Briefly heralded as one of the more exciting voices in pop filmmaking — he emerged from Thor: Ragnarok not only unscathed, but instilling false hope that an actual idiosyncratic sensibility could be smuggled into the MCU — with seemingly every studio and franchise wanting to be in business with him. But then came Jojo Rabbit, which, Academy Award notwithstanding, is still one of the most spectacularly misjudged films ever released by a major studio. After that, another Thor sequel; a textbook example of “should have quit while you were ahead.” Then there were a handful of nails-on-a-chalkboard supporting roles in films like Free Guy that did little to dispel the suspicion that the multi-hyphenate was trying to position himself as New Zealand’s cuddlier answer to Russell Brand. All of this leads to Next Goal Wins, one of the more cursed productions in recent memory. Filmed back in 2019, the ostensibly feel-good sports comedy sat on a shelf for years, first while Disney weathered the pandemic and then so the film could go through re-shoots to replace alleged cannibalism enthusiast Armie Hammer with Will Arnett (while we’re at it, the film’s star, Michael Fassbender, would also kindly ask that you not dig too deeply into why you haven’t seen much of him either over the last few years). Frankly, it’s all a lot to lay at the feet of any film, especially one that aspires to little more than doing for soccer in American Samoa what Cool Runnings did for the Jamaican bobsled team.
It’s damning the film with the faintest of praise to note that Next Goal Wins is mercifully no JoJo Rabbit, although that’s really a matter of diminished ambition and the filmmaker’s curdled comedic sensibilities being a better fit for the tale of an alcoholic rage case letting go of his anger and embracing island life vs. “Hitler Youth or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love to Dance.” But make no mistake, Waititi’s voice as a filmmaker remains as pungent as it’s ever been, and those unable to get on the film’s wavelength are in for an excruciating 100 minutes. It’s a lot of cutesy deadpan deliveries, infantilization of adults, calculated irreverence, and pop culture references from the ’80s and ’90s. But most irritating is the way the film calls attention to its own hackneyed conventions without actually subverting them or simply avoiding them altogether. It allows the film to exist as a shameless crowd-pleaser while simultaneously acting as though it were something better than that.
The film is based on the true story of the 2011 American Samoa national soccer team, a unit that was previously humiliated on the global stage when they lost at a 2002 World Cup qualifier to Australia 31-0 (not a typo). The team was treated as an international laughing stock, and most of its best players resigned in shame, with a majority of the roster spots going to islanders possessing negligible athletic talent. It had gotten to the point where the president of the Football Federation of American Samoa, Tavita (Oscar Kightley), had managed down expectations to simply wanting the team to score a single goal in international competition as an all but symbolic nod to relevancy. Meanwhile, an ocean away, United States Soccer Federation coach Thomas Rongen (Fassbender) is in the process of being fired after having flamed out in another high profile assignment; the film emphasizes his humiliation by making the character sit at a tiny wooden school desk and listen to Flight of the Concords actor Rhys Darby narrate Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, presented on an overhead projector. Told he’s completely out of other options, Rongen is shipped off to the small island nation in order to whip the American Samoa team into shape over only four weeks, barely in time for the next World Cup qualifier, with the simple mandate from Tavita of “just one goal.”
What follows is your basic “reverse Ted Lasso,” with Rongen positioned as an embittered tactician, resentful of his new post and holding on to a tragedy the film attempts to cleverly dance around for nearly its entire runtime. As these things go, he at first gradually and then suddenly learns to “have fun” as he coaches a squad of misfits nobody believes in. Fassbender performs with a perpetual scowl and a hair trigger, habitually lashing out at his players, which is naturally contrasted with the American Samoans who are, to a person, even-keeled, thoughtful, and mostly sanguine about the white man who’s constantly screaming at them. It’s the sort of film where the dramatic beats are inseparable from the genre, complete with training montages charting incremental improvements, an 11th-hour crisis of confidence, and finally a Rocky/Tin Cup/Eddie the Eagle-style moral victory. The team was previously the subject of a 2014 documentary of the same name, and so the degree to which Next Goal Wins even “needs” to exist is entirely attributable to Waititi placing his personal stamp on the film, specifically his sing-song silliness and comedic embellishments (the director even appears in the opening seconds of the film as an island priest sporting an enormous Fu Manchu, breaking the fourth wall and gently cajoling the viewer to not dwell too much on the bits of the story that have been exaggerated for effect).
Waititi’s throat-clearing intro actually serves a useful purpose in that it level sets whether the film is going to work for you. If you get a chuckle out of the filmmaker’s giant mustache and instantly identifiable lilting delivery, then you’ll probably enjoy yourself. If not, good luck, as it’s not like things get more subtle as the film goes along (it should be noted that while Next Goal Wins was shot in Hawaii, the majority of the cast is from New Zealand, and one often gets the impression that Waititi believes saying anything in a Kiwi accent = comedy gold). So when we’re told early in the film that Tavita has made a bet with the other soccer federations that if the American Samoa team fails to score a goal in the second half then the other team executives get to draw “boobs” on his face, you can be assured that when we immediately cut back to the character post-game, his face will be adorned with eleven pairs of knockers. You can be equally confident that the film will then attempt to wring almost ten minutes of material out of this jape, including having the character walk around with the juvenile markings for days — they, of course, used “permanent” ink — and be accused of cheating for having “other women’s breasts” on his face by his irate wife (the always appreciated Rachel House). There are no throwaway gags in a Taika Waititi film: if something reasonably funny happens, the film will call attention to it, then circle back again just to make sure nobody could mistake its intentions. Why settle for simply showing Fassbender watching Al Pacino’s “the inches are everywhere” speech from Any Given Sunday for inspiration — amusing, albeit lazy in playing upon the audience’s existing affection for the scene — when we can then show Rongen delivering the speech nearly verbatim to the team without attribution, followed by having one of the players call him out for stealing the monologue only to have the coach indignantly deny the plagiarism before pivoting to something more off the cuff? A scream, right?
What tends to redeem a film like this is the extent to which all of this is meant to be inoffensive and how much “its heart is in the right place,” which one can begrudgingly acknowledge while still finding the whole thing insufferable. Even then, there’s still something patronizing about the film’s white savior narrative, which Waititi cheekily acknowledges (because of course he does), as well as how the film treats the American Samoans as innocent naïfs who are bubbling streams of plainspoken wisdom and working class resolve. The most intriguing dynamic in the film is the relationship between Rongen and the trans soccer player Jaiyah Saelua (played by non-binary performer Kaimana), which allows the opportunity to explore the American Samoan concept of Faʻafafine (essentially, a third gender). While biologically still able to play on the men’s soccer team, Saelua is taunted by opposing teams and is visibly conflicted about her hormone medication having a negative impact on her play, and the film treats her sacrifice with thoughtfulness and genuine compassion. Further, Kaimana and Fassbender boast great chemistry, and Waititi is smart to build much of its second act around their interactions, evolving the relationship from Rongen spitefully deadnaming the character at practice to eventually viewing her as a surrogate daughter; that may sound treacly, but it’s one of the few elements of the film which Waititi doesn’t ruin by undercutting the seriousness with self-conscious snark or mockery. But this is at best a small sliver of humanity, and its moving effect, like everything else in Next Goal Wins, is subsumed by the filmmaker’s classroom cut-up antics.
DIRECTOR: Taika Waititi; CAST: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Knightly, Elisabeth Moss, Rachel House, Kaimana; DISTRIBUTOR: Searchlight Pictures; IN THEATERS: November 17; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 44 min.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 5.