Next Goal Wins
Next Goal Wins is a sports movie, an inspirational teacher movie, a white guy learns about himself while visiting another culture movie, a true story and a wacky Taika Waititi comedy all in one. It works at times. The characters are likable and the story is pleasant. The screenplay doesn’t mock its people or their traditions. But it also delves into a lot of cliches and doesn’t build up much in the way of impactful personal drama. It is a serviceable feel-good family comedy just in time for Thanksgiving. It’s okay, if pretty forgettable.
Thomas Rongen is a once respected soccer coach who has definitively lost his way. With no other offers on the table, he takes a job as head coach of American Samoa, a colossally terrible team that has never scored a goal. Can he turn them from a joke into a real team? Can they help him rediscover a passion for life? Have you seen a movie before?
Formula can certainly be effective and Next Goal Wins (96 minutes, without the end credits) is absolutely formulaic. Yet Waititi struggles to connect his various threads in a substantial way. It’s probably 35% sports, 30% fish-out-of-water goofiness, 25% white man understanding the world through a different culture and 10% Taika Waititi being silly. The main one he seems to want to follow is centered around Rongen’s redemption, though there are a lot of detours making that arc a little weak.
To the screenplay’s credit, this isn’t truly a white savior story. Rongen is no savior. He is angry, impatient, arrogant and only comes to care about his players in spite of himself. Michael Fassbender plays him as a hot-tempered jerk who acts like this job is penance for his poor behavior. He spends a decent amount of the running time treating these proud people like they’re annoying minor obstacles in his epic story. It definitely fits the vibe Waititi is going for.
I’m sure there will be complaints that the American Samoa characters are given far less development, mostly being held to a trait or two. That is accurate, though, in fairness, the coach tends to be the focus in sports movies. Regardless, it ended fairly recently as I’m writing this and I don’t remember much about most of the players. Who I do remember is Tavita, the devoted head of the Football Federation of American Samoa. This is a man who longs to see his country’s team score, just once. Still, as important as they are to him, his faith and his island mean more. There is nuance there and the performance by Oscar Kightley is funny, sweet and doesn’t tilt too much into caricature. Waititi’s style works best here through him.
There are several funny sequences, along with a strong sense of location and it is easy to root for these characters. However, the tonal shifts throw the drama out of whack. The goofier moments don’t sit easily next to the serious ones. Waititi handled that balance expertly in Jojo Rabbit, but let it get out of hand in Thor: Love and Thunder. This is closer to the latter, with Michael Fassbender playing it as a sad dramedy, while everyone else seems to be having a good time. It is an awkward mix that causes the formula to sag. There are things to like here for viewers who enjoy at least one of the arcs Next Goal Wins stumbles through, though it is difficult to imagine anyone being enthusiastic about it.
3 out of 5
Michael Fassbender as Thomas Rongen
Oscar Kightley as Tavita
Kaimana as Jaiyah
Elisabeth Moss as Gail
Will Arnett as Alex
Directed by Taika Waititi
Screenplay by Taika Waititi and Iain Morris