NEXT GOAL WINS – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Taika Waititi has established himself as a director with a specific brand of comedy. He took his New Zealand indie sensibilities to Hollywood and made two Marvel films (one quite good, one most certainly not) and ended up with an Academy Award nomination for best picture and adapted screenplay win for Jojo Rabbit. Having a recognizable voice is not necessarily a net positive at all times, and unfortunately Next Goal Wins suffers from quite simply being too much Taika Waititi.

Taking its inspiration from the excellent 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins (introduced by Waititi himself in the role of a priest) is a mostly true story with some fictional embellishments. The emphasis needs to be on the fictional embellishments. It is the story of the American Samoan soccer team and their humiliating defeat against the Australian Socceroos in 2001 where the score was 31-0. It is still the greatest margin any team has lost by in the history of FIFA. Ten years later the soccer team has still not scored a single goal against anyone and much to his chagrin, the otherwise unemployable Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is sent to the small islands to prepare the team for their FIFA qualifying match against Tonga.

In this tale of woe, or rather “woah” as Waititi’s priest terms it, Rongen, a “sad skinny white man,” suffers his own grief and humiliation and must learn to not be a raging ass in order to whip the American Samoan team into some kind of shape. A somewhat impossible task as they are mostly terrible players who think soccer is a game, not a sport. There is the gentle previous coach, Ace (David Fane), Tavita (Oscar Kightley) the head of the American Samoan Football Federation, his son Daru (Beulah Koale) a player with a few anger issues, and the Fa’fafine (third gender) player Jaiyah (played by trans actor Kaimana who is honestly the heart and soul of the entire film).

While the often drunk and always irritated Rongen believes he has to Mr. Miyagi the soccer team it is American Samoa which ends up being the Mr. Miyagi to help heal his broken spirit. Waititi might be doing the whole “magical island of nice simple people” nonsense with an eye firmly fixed on irony, but it doesn’t take away from the fact the film does fall into that trap.

Waititi and co-screenwriter Iain Morris are so fixated on the “feel good plus pathos” recipe that they introduce elements that are politely termed a “stretch.” Jaiyah has to deal with Rongen’s transphobia and then becomes a surrogate daughter to him (to replace his stepdaughter Nicole Megaloudis, who did die in a car accident). There are inserted scenes with his ex-partner Gail (Elisabeth Moss) who is now dating FIFA big-wig Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett). Waititi crowds the screen with so many of his favourite collaborators (Rhys Darby, Luke Hemsworth, Angus Sampson, Rachel House) that he relegates most of the islanders and the players to mostly interchangeable characters who all somehow deliver lines like Waititi playing Korg.

The realities of life in American Samoa are acknowledged but also swept aside. An extremely poor territory where the main exports are fodder for the American military, tuna, and rugby players, and which had suffered a devastating Tsunami just a few years earlier. For a director who understands the effects of violent colonialism, Waititi is not particularly interested in acknowledging it. Rather he leans in on quirkiness, religious values, and the glow of island tradition.

Next Goal Wins does have some excellent moments and Michael Fassbender is quite the comedic talent. The joy of seeing the team finally score a goal is absolutely wonderful, and the coda of “where did they all end up?” is satisfying, especially for Jaiyah.

The best one can say about Next Goal Wins is it’s cute. The worst would require a complete breakdown of where Taika Waititi is stumbling as an artist. Too many jokes far too often that many of them just fail to land. There is some great writing, some wonderful performances, but Next Goal Wins is a cluttered mess which could have benefitted from slowing its madcap pace. It certainly isn’t the worst thing either Waititi or Michael Fassbender have done, but it is also far from the best. Waititi has scored his own goal by being remarkably repetitive. Next Goal Wins is not a winner.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.