Wednesday, April 17, 2024

“NEXT GOAL WINS”

THE STORY – Dutch coach Thomas Rongen tries to turn the American Samoa soccer team into winners.

THE CAST – Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett & Elisabeth Moss

THE TEAM – Taika Waititi (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes


After years of delays, both Covid-related and not, Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” finally made it to its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect pairing of a director to a story than this. Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, “Next Goal Wins” tells the story of the American Samoa football team, considered the worst in the world. It’s an underdog story, one inherently built for Waititi’s brand of goofy comedy paired with plenty of tender moments. Not everything about “Next Goal Wins” turns out smoothly, but this crowd-pleasing sports film has enough opportunities for audiences to cheer for.

Waititi himself opens up the film, addressing the audience front and center in character as a priest, equipped with over-the-top facial hair, recounting the story of the American Samoa football team. He describes what follows as a true story, but “with a few embellishments along the way.” Ten years after losing 31-0 to Australia, setting the record for the worst loss in international soccer history, the American Samoa football team is aimless. They’re easily the worst team in the world and without direction on how to fix the problem. Enter Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who was recently fired from his previous coaching position primarily because of his volcanic temper. When American Soccer Federation head Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett) and Rongen’s ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) give him a choice between no job and coaching the American Samoa team, he chose to stay in coaching – but it was a close call. Once on the island, Rongen makes it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to be there as he reluctantly works with the misfit players to give them the opportunity not to win a game but to at least score just one goal.

Tavita (Oscar Knightley), head of the Football Federation of American Samoa, is Rongen’s guide to the team. He cheerfully greets Rongen and attempts to help him navigate his new position, including introducing him to the team. All Tavita wants is “just one goal.” The American Samoa team had never scored a single goal in the game up until Rongen’s arrival. He doesn’t even care if Rongen leads them to a victory – one goal is enough to fulfill the dreams of the players and all those living on the island looking toward the team for any hope in their lives. The team is a lovable batch of individuals, but none of them are truly excellent at playing football despite their passion for the game. One of the players catches Rongen’s attention right away – Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), the first non-binary and trans woman to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier.

This story’s “white savior” nature is unavoidable, and the movie is well aware of the many sports genre cliches it will inevitably fall into. Rongen may have been sent to fix their problems and turn the team around – to quite literally save the team. but he’s told, “We don’t need a coach with a white savior complex.” Wisely, “Next Goal Wins” flips this on its head and finds Rongen not really helping the team all that much. Instead, his presence helps light a fire underneath Tavita, who invests lots of time to help as much as he can. Rongen also partners with Jaiyah, who functions almost as both an assistant coach and eventual player turned captain. Turning Rongen from a “white savior coach” to a genuine collaborator helps the screenplay avoid some of the criticism likely heading its way, even if it doesn’t entirely throw off that baggage. It’s one thing for Waititi to acknowledge the pitfalls of the screenplay, but then why knowingly fall into them at that point?

The humor in “Next Goal Wins” is cranked up to a heightened level of exaggeration. Waititi’s signature irreverent, gentle comedy pairs well with the lovable team and fish-out-of-water story for Rongen. Still, his humor will not work for everyone. Detractors from his previous films won’t be won over by “Next Goal Wins” as the film contains his signature brand of quirky comedy and vibrant filmmaking that suggests the world is more simple than complex. Opening the movie with him, as a character who doesn’t even factor into the story in any way, is an odd choice, too. It doesn’t add anything to the story and feels like more of a narcissistic way to put his face at the film’s bookends to firmly communicate to audiences that any and all criticism should be directed his way for telling this story how he’s told it.

The overwhelming focus on cranking out the jokes makes for a very funny movie but comes somewhat at the expense of the true story. The movie is often disjointed and has odd pacing, making the emotional investment in each member of the team extremely difficult. Even so, there are loads of cheer-worthy moments contained within “Next Goal Wins” that will likely play well with general audiences. After all, this is an underdog story in the vein of “Cool Runnings” and “The Mighty Ducks,” and no matter how tired the formula may become, seeing a scrappy team come up from nothing to achieve something extraordinary is always satisfying and inspirational.

Some of the biggest cheers come from moments featuring Jaiayah. From the beginning, her place on the team is never in question from her Samoan teammates. She’s one of their most effective players and clearly a leader among them. As Jaiyah, Kaimana’s performance steals the show away from the top-billed Michael Fassbender. She captures both the vulnerability and power of Jaiyah, which is uplifting without pandering. The partnership developed between her and Rongen starts rocky but turns out to be one of the best parts of “Next Goal Wins.” Meanwhile, Fassbender is well cast as Rongen. He’s grumpy with a short fuse, but he infuses the character with a slowly burning candle of warmth inside of him. Knightley pairs well with him, scoring the vast majority of the best jokes in the movie.

While not every part of the story comes together, many pieces within “Next Goal Wins” still work well enough to get it over the goal line. It’s hard not to be moved when the underdog team scores big, despite having seen such a predictable story play out so many times before. The cheers come naturally, thanks to some clever, self-aware jokes, a well-rounded ensemble, and the lovely true story of perseverance and teamwork. This certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Waitit’s indelible career, but it’s a fine film that audiences should enjoy.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Like all great underdog stories, "Next Goal Wins" is a rousing crowdpleaser. Classic Taika humor makes it breezy and fun, and Kaiwana steals the show.

THE BAD - The story's pacing feels disjointed, and not all pieces of the narrative come together. Taika's signature brand of humor is cranked up to eleven here and won't work for everyone.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howathttps://nextbestpicture.com
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Like all great underdog stories, "Next Goal Wins" is a rousing crowdpleaser. Classic Taika humor makes it breezy and fun, and Kaiwana steals the show.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The story's pacing feels disjointed, and not all pieces of the narrative come together. Taika's signature brand of humor is cranked up to eleven here and won't work for everyone.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>6/10<br><br>"NEXT GOAL WINS"