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‘Next Goal Wins’ (review)

Taika Waititi is known for his goofy, manic, offbeat style of writing and directing.

In Next Goal Wins, he applies this lens to the sports documentary. Well, in a way.

Waititi’s latest is based on the 2014 British documentary of the same name which profiled Dutch-American soccer coach Thoman Rongen, who was assigned to coach the abysmal American Samoa national team ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

A worldwide laughing stock, the team is still licking wounds from the worst loss in international soccer history — a 31-0 beatdown by Australia in 2001.

If this was What We Do In the Shadows but sports, it would be a hit. However, Waititi does not give the care to the story of the American Samoans that he does to the lives of vampires, instead depending on cheap jokes about lack of refinement amongst the islanders and fish-out-of-water tropes for the centered European coach, an oddly miscast Michael Fassbender.

What little heart the uneven film holds is frequently undermined by Waititi’s inability to show vulnerability if an easy gag can fit too.

This isn’t to say that some of those easy gags aren’t worth a few laughs.

Oscar Kightley is endlessly funny onscreen as Tavita, the national team’s manager. And videographer for the local news show. And restaurant owner (small island = lots of hats). He steals the scene with straight man humor every time, and encompasses the “roll with it” attitude that grates Rongen on arrival. Sitting in full seriousness in an office with a keyboard, a mouse, but no monitor, Kightley brightens the mood and brings in some emotional depth that the film as a whole is sorely lacking.

Unfortunately, we do not get to know too much about the lives of the other players.

In fact, there is a scene where one player starts to tearfully share their story but is almost immediately cutoff because a game is about to start. It’s almost like Waititi knows he has failed in differentiating many of the players but finds it funny instead of concerning. It is odd to see such messy treatment of cultural heritage and indigineous actors from him but the film is in uneven ground. The movie is far too awkward to be accepted by mainstream audiences but with too little care to maintain the indie crowd. Bend It Like Beckham had more rewarding character arcs.

While he is (probably?) trying his best, Fassbender cannot do much more than be angry and unyielding in many of his scenes including some incredibly uncomfortable mistreatment of Jaiyah Saelua (played by the film’s breakout star, nonbinary actor Kaimana), including deadnaming the first nonbinary player to compete in a men’s FIFA qualifier. They are nothing more than a vehicle to move Rongen’s story forward and it is troubling to see such sidelining of the most interesting personal story of the bunch.

Of course Rongen will see the errors of his ways and fall in love with island lifestyles in a format that, for something coming out in 2023, is dangerously close to the noble savage trope. The film takes a promising little known comeback story and mires it in tired, shallow storytelling. Since it is not wholly unwatchable and has an important storyline in Saelua’s existence, we’ll change from a red to a yellow card for Next Goal Wins.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Jonathan Cavendish, Garrett Basch,
Taika Waititi, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison
Screenplay by Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Based on Next Goal Wins
by Mike Brett, Steve Jamison
Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane,
Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss

 

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