Before the world premiere of his latest film, Next Goal Wins, Taika Waititi offered a few introductory words and a characteristically dopey bit. He thanked his team, and then punched the microphone at the Princess of Wales theater because he was fired-up about imperialism. The microphone broke. The crowd laughed. Before leaving the stage, Waititi tried to express a sincere thought about the importance of seeing oneself on screen.
The sentiment about representation didn’t land. Far more affecting was when the director invited an elder on stage to bless the film and welcome the crowd. The woman, flanked by members of her family, delivered a heartfelt speech and expressed genuine excitement about Next Goal Wins and Waititi’s achievements. She walked off stage, the lights dimmed and the movie started.
Next Goal Wins
The Bottom Line
Errs on the side of jokiness.
This moment, ironically, captures the problems with Next Goal Wins. The film works best when Waititi gets out of his own way and lets the characters speak for themselves instead of self-consciously extinguishing any warmth with jokes.
The movie is an ambitious dramatization of the American Samoa soccer team’s attempts to overcome the humiliation of a 2001 loss to Australia in the World Cup qualifying match. The story centers on a washed-up Dutch coach (played by a miscast Michael Fassbender) hired to turn the chronic “losers” into a winning team. Next Goal Wins, written by Waititi and Iain Morris (The InBetweeners), takes pleasure in mocking sports drama tropes even though it relies on them for emotional payoffs. It’s an odd approach that results in a film that doesn’t really earn any of its grand conclusions.
Thomas Rongen (Fassbender) arrives in American Samoa four weeks before the 2011 World Cup qualifying match. The FIFA board (whose officials are played by Elisabeth Moss and Will Arnett) has reassigned him to rehabilitate the losing team because his anger issues and off-field reputation have made him a liability. Thomas doesn’t understand the decision, and after quickly going through the five stages of grief — one the film’s funniest sequences — he packs his bag and moves to the Pacific Ocean island.
If you’ve seen any sports drama ever then it won’t be hard to guess the trajectory of Next Goal Wins. Thomas struggles to acclimate to island life, finding his angry disposition doesn’t mesh with the chiller, more heart-forward attitude of the American Samoans. The head of the soccer team, Tavita (an excellent Oscar Kightley), tries, in an uphill battle, to help the coach adjust.
He makes some progress. As Thomas gets to know the team members — which include Tavita’s son (Beulah Koale) and Jaiyah (Kaimana), a fa’afafine player — he reframes his understanding of the sport and life. But the character’s growth is hard to buy, especially an eleventh-hour revelation of a traumatic event, because Waititi doesn’t invest in sincerity.
Leaning almost exclusively on comedy, Waititi shortchanges his characters. He presents their development in fits and spurts, which translates to a choppy narrative rhythm. Jaiyah, especially, has the most uneven and disappointing storyline. The real-life player made history as the first trans woman to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. Although Next Goal Wins includes this fact in its postscript, it doesn’t treat her as more than a cipher for Thomas’ faint evolution. From the way Waititi and DP Lachlan Milne shoot Jaiyah, cutting to close-ups of her face after pivotal sequences, you’d think she is critical to the plot. But her story is relegated to wordless montages and actions whose motivations feel at once random and unmoored from the film’s broader portrayal of her character.
The practice sequences in Next Goal Wins are perfunctory, the moments in which the teammates rally to cheer up Thomas strained and the inspirational speeches forced. Even when the film tries to highlight the personality and traditions of the American Samoans, it sabotages the scenes by using them to mock the cluelessness of white outsiders like Thomas.
After weeks of practice and explosive arguments in which Thomas repeatedly threatens to quit, the American Samoa team must face their opponents, the Independent State of Samoa. Their journey to this moment has been filled with strenuous humor and vague gestures at heart. By the time the film gets to its third act, in which the players play the game of their lives, our patience has been tested. Next Goal Wins doubtless thinks it’s doing good by this story of a team genuinely worth rooting for. If only Waititi had been willing to risk leaving it all on the field.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Production companies: Searchlight Pictures, Imaginarium Productions, DEFENDER, Garrett Basch Production
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriters: Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Producers: Jonathan Cavendish, Garrett Basch, Taika Waititi, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison
Executive producers: Andy Serkis, Will Tennant, Kathryn Dean, Josh McLaglen
Cinematographer: Lachlan Milne
Production designer: Ra Vincent
Costume designer: Miyako Bellizzi
Editor: Nicholas Monsour
Composer: Michael Giacchino
Casting directors: Katie Doyle, Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd
1 hour 43 minutes