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NEXT GOAL WINS (2023) review

November 17, 2023


written by: Taika Waititi and Iain Morris
produced by: Jonathan Cavendish, Garrett Basch, Taika Waititi, Mike Brett & Steve Jamison
directed by: Taika Waititi
rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and crude material)
runtime: 103 min.
U.S. release date: November 17, 2023


What I noticed within the first couple of minutes of Taika Waititi’s new movie, “Next Goal Wins” is that Taika Waititi is in it. By the time the underdog sports biopic was over, I realized it would’ve been better if this was a documentary without Waititi in it or directing it. His trademark brand of oddball humor overwhelms the movie from start to finish, in a movie that would benefit from not being an overt comedy. Too much of it backfired and tanked his last movie, “Thor: Love and Thunder”, and while at least he’s left blockbuster franchise material (for now) and gone back to smaller quirky stories, like his best movies “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, there’s still too much of him getting in the way here.

So then it comes as no surprise when I learned that Waititi is adapting “Next Goal Wins” from a 2014 documentary of the same name by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison about American Samoa’s men’s national soccer team back in 2001. The team was slaughtered by Australia, losing 31-0, during the World Cup qualifying rounds. It wasn’t a total surprise for them, since they were a team that had never scored a goal. Ever. Not a one.



Ten years later, nothing had changed. So, the team brought on Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), with the hopes of getting at least better or at least scoring one goal. This isn’t exactly a position Rongen was vying for, but it’s the only offer given to the hot-hotted alcoholic. He’s told this in a meeting with his boss, Alex Magnesun (Will Arnett), who’s currently sleeping with Rongen’s ex-wife, Gail (Elizabeth Moss), who is also on the committee. She agrees with the decision, stating getting shipped off to an island in the South Pacific will be good for Rongen and will help clear his head and maybe calm his temper. Of course, that’s not how Rongen feels and we see him immediately go through various stages of denial, something that is humorously (and literally) pointed out to him on a slide projector.

Once Rongen arrives on the island of American Samoa, “Next Goal Wins” offers pretty standard fish-out-of-water material for Rongen, as he gets acclimated to island life. He is met at the airport by Tavita (a scene-stealing Oscar Kightley), a man who wears many hats, one of which is the head of the Football Federation American Samoa team, who happily greets Rongen and shows him around. Despite some of the player’s disapproval, Tavita is hopeful that this outsider will bring his coaching experience to a team that desperately needs help. Actually, Tavita is strongly encouraged by his wife, Ruth (Waititi regular, Rachel House), to seek off-island help, yet Rongen may not be quite what either of them hoped for.

Bewildered and frustrated at his situation, Rongen tries to present a focused front amid the players. His speeches and pep talks are regurgitated from various movies, such as “Taken”, “The Karate Kid”, and “The Matrix”, and it’s hard to believe that any of that would be based on reality, moreso one of many in-jokes between co-writers, Waititi and Iain Morris. Much of Rongen’s initial time on the island finds him riding the untested team hard while getting used to cultural rituals like how at a certain time each day everyone stops what they are doing to pray.



At one point, Rongen is done with it all and is ready to pack it up and head home. He tells this to his ex on the phone and Gail asks, “What home?” and the truth hits Rongen. This is all he has right now. Inevitably and albeit too quickly (yet convenient for the storyline), Rongen comes around and starts believing in these players, giving them hope that they can not only score a goal but also win a game. It takes him actually getting to know these players and them accepting him for everyone to start to see progress. One such personality is popular player, Jaiyah (Kaimana), a transgender woman who comes and goes as she pleases, someone who at first Rongen is completely confused by, but the two eventually come to a mutual understanding through education and open communication. Rongen finds common ground with many of the players when he realizes they are hindered by past humiliations, just as he is haunted by his past failures and trauma.

It goes without saying that eventually the American Samoan team scores a goal and wins a game or else there wouldn’t be a movie here. The “true story” material is there for the kind of typical inspirational sports drama that we’ve seen before, but “Next Goal Wins” stands out because Waititi is at the helm and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The director, who unnecessarily appears as comic relief as an American Samoan priest (and as a brief narrator), winds up turning most of the inhabitants of the island to be entirely too funny, seemingly appearing to indulge what he considers to be cute and quirky.

To my knowledge, this is the first time in which Fassbender has headlined a comedy. He’s fine here, but his strengths and talents aren’t quite a perfect match for this specific role. He does somewhat resemble Thomas Rongen, so maybe that’s why he was cast. His work here is boosted when he’s in the presence of Kightley and Kaimana. It would’ve been more interesting if the story revolved more around Kaimana’s character since she was the first transgender player ever to compete in a World Cup game.

Curiously, there’s quite a long and strange tale behind the making of “Next Goal Wins” with principal photography beginning four years ago. Here’s the short version: After the success of 2018’s “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi returned to low-budget fare with this story. However, for unknown reasons the director walked away from the movie for quite a while, choosing to complete “Thor: Love and Thunder” (released in 2022), and then finally returning to “Next Goal Wins” years after he started making it. Maybe another director altogether should’ve taken the reigns.

If a more serious approach was given to the characters and the overall story, a director could’ve still added some comedy here and there for levity, but Waititi’s dry humor overwhelms the story and it doesn’t take long for “Next Goal Wins” to become tiresome. The characters are enjoyable and the lesson of just “being happy” in life is welcome, but Waititi feels like he’s poking his head around every corner and trying too hard for laughs.






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