Sports shows, be it drama, comedy or a mix of, have a unique charm, effortlessly blending ease, emotion, and entertainment. Often captivating audiences with their blend of underdog triumphs, team spirit, and personal growth, they range from heartfelt dramas like The Blind Side, where a homeless black teen realises his potential as a football player, to comedies like She’s The Man, where a girl disguises herself as a boy to play on the boys’ soccer team.
A recent example is the Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, which won hearts by portraying an American football coach taking the helm of a British soccer team, blending humour with touching insights into teamwork and leadership. Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins ventures into this diverse genre, promising to add its unique flavour, mixing Waititi’s distinct humour with the inspirational qualities inherent in sports narratives.
Waititi’s journey in filmmaking has seen its highs and lows. His early work, like Boy and What We Do In The Shadows, was lauded for its quirky humour. However, his more recent endeavours have received mixed reactions, with some criticising the chaotic narratives in Thor: Love and Thunder.
Next Goal Wins showcases Waititi’s signature jokes, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his acclaimed projects such as Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit, and Our Flag Means Death. After a complex production journey, marred by reshoots and cast changes for the past three years, the film finally hits the screens – a testament to Waititi’s unpredictable yet intriguing cinematic path.
The film steps into the genre of sports movies with a familiar narrative: an underdog team striving for a comeback. This time, it is through the eyes of Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen, played by Michael Fassbender, who is assigned the daunting task of reviving the American Samoa football team, historically one of the worst in the world after their 31-0 World Cup qualifier loss to Australia. Following their crushing defeat, Rongen’s journey is not just about soccer; it’s about turning a seemingly hopeless situation into a beacon of hope.
Waititi, celebrated for his unique brand of comedy in Thor: Ragnarok, attempts to infuse his signature style into this tale but clips the goal posts instead of scoring. The storyline, drawing parallels to classic underdog stories like The Mighty Ducks, treads a familiar path of training montages and borrowed inspirational speeches but dribbles around the shadow of these predecessors, lacking the innovative twist Waititi is known for.
The film’s heart partly lies in its main cast, especially Oscar Kightley (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as Tavita, the infectiously optimistic head of the Football Federation American Samoa, who oozes an engaging flair. With his unwavering positivity and belief in the team, Kightley delivers Waititi’s witty dialogue with impeccable timing and infectious enthusiasm. His performance is a masterclass in comedic timing, whether he’s earnestly delivering profound metaphors or rallying the team with ‘lady boobs’ scrawled across his face in permanent marker.
Newcomer non-binary actor Kaimana plays Jaiyah Saelua, the first openly transgender woman to compete in a World Cup qualifier for men. As a crucial center-back player, Kaimana adds depth and authenticity to the narrative, crafting Saelua with sensitivity and depth, and making her stand out in a sea of ensemble characters. Both Kaimana and Saelua are fa’afafine, a third gender in traditional American Samoan society.
Kaimana’s natural chemistry between them and Michael Fassbender infuses the story with a sense of genuine human connection. Michael Fassbender’s performance as Rongen is commendable, and he holds his own fairly well by bringing a certain authenticity to the role, although the character’s development feels rushed, especially towards the film’s conclusion.
While we gain some insight into Rongen’s character through his failed coaching career and crumbling marriage, it’s not until the film’s closing act that we truly understand the man he is. This final act places a significant burden on Rongen, and Fassbender delivers a compelling performance, but it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the film would have benefitted from earlier glimpses into his past.
Fassbender’s powerful performances are also overshadowed by the film’s attempts at slapstick humour, which often fall flat and fail to land. In the middle of the film, a character gets into bus accident, which was intended as a comical moment, but instead is a jarring and uncomfortable scene.
The inclusion of renowned actors like Will Arnett as Alex Magnussen, one of Rongen’s superiors, and Elisabeth Moss as Gail, Rongen’s first wife, does not significantly elevate the film, as their roles seem underutilised amidst the overarching plot. Waititi himself, typically a standout in his projects, appears stretched thin with his other works (including directing his very own Star Wars movie), with the film reflecting a dilution of his usual comedic and directorial strengths.
Next Goal Wins settles into the comfort zone of familiar sports comedy tropes, delivering a heartwarming tale of underdog triumph that fits snugly within the genre’s predictable framework. While the film provides ample entertainment, it fails to break free from the established formula, leaving the audience with a sense of missed potential.
One would expect Taika Waititi, fresh off his Oscar win for Jojo Rabbit, to inject his signature blend of quirkiness and emotional depth into the narrative, but Next Goal Wins feels curiously devoid of his distinctive touch. The film’s adherence to sports comedy conventions, while ensuring a lighthearted and enjoyable viewing experience, ultimately comes at the expense of originality and creative risk-taking. Waititi’s comedic touch also seems to desert him in his brief appearances in the movie as narrator and pastor, leaving his performance surprisingly uninspired.
In essence, Next Goal Wins seems to be a reflection of Waititi’s current phase in his filmmaking career – exploring different genres but not quite capturing the magic of his earlier works. The film, while a pleasant watch, doesn’t leave a lasting impact, falling into a category of being just average in a genre that has seen many exceptional stories.
However, in reality, the American Samoa team’s journey does mirror the events happening in Next Goal Wins, signifying a remarkable turnaround from their infamous defeat. Their story, beyond the screen, is a testament to resilience, marking an inspiring chapter in football history. As of today, Rongen is the colour commentator for Inter Miami, also known as Lionel Messi’s current team. Saelua now captains her village club Ilaoa and To’omata, and is a FIFA ambassador for equality and LGBTQ athletes.
Next Goal Wins lands in theatres on 7 December.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
For fans of sports films looking for an easy, feel-good movie, Next Goal Wins might score a goal, but it may not satisfy those seeking the depth and innovation typically associated with Taika Waititi’s storytelling.
Story - 7/10
Direction - 6.5/10
Characterisation - 8/10
Geek Satisfaction - 7/10