Next Goal Wins (2023)
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriters: Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, Ioane Goodhue
Taika Waititi is perhaps most beloved for his small, emotionally charged films that lovingly tend to the stories of Indigenous and Polynesian people. From the 2010 film Boy, which tackles hero worship and abandonment, to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which sketches an oddball but ultimately charming relationship between a boy and his caretaker, Waititi’s signature is a blend of humor and heartache.
Of course, Waititi is also known for dipping his toes into the MCU. Thor: Ragnarok brought a breath of fresh air to the franchise with a perfect one-two punch of wit and action, and Thor: Love and Thunder was… less fresh. As Waititi continues to venture into mainstream projects, his die-hard fans worry that his sarcastic one-liners and kitschy stunts are starting to get old. His newest film unfortunately underscores that point.
Next Goal Wins tells the true story of American Samoa’s bottom-tier soccer team and Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), the blacklisted coach who reluctantly tries to lead them to victory – or at least a singular goal. Within the first fifteen minutes, hoaky narration from Waititi proves that the style is indeed wearing thin. The introduction, which is meant to imitate a bedtime story, feels more like a chance for Waititi to needlessly insert himself rather than an intentional style choice. Gimmicks continue to overpower what heart the movie has with a sense of overly self-aware irony.
The film has a few good moments, though – mostly when Waititi allows the culture and quirks of American Samoa to shine. As Rongen steps off the plane, he is ambushed by the island’s “most popular show” Who’s on the Plane? and soon finds out the cameraman, Tavita (Oscar Kightley) is also the head of the American Samoa Soccer Foundation. It’s a funny scene that showcases the closeness of the island and the spirit of the people. Unfortunately, these moments are stifled by the film’s insistence on keeping a tight focus on Rongen, the White protagonist.
Next Goal Wins succumbs to the White Savior trope to the tenth degree. The players are portrayed as bumbling simpletons who know more about avoiding work than playing soccer. It’s up to the white outsider coach to come in and harness the raw strength of these men and turn them into real athletes. At one point, one of the players says that they can’t perform in their match against Tonga because ‘they’re not feeling it.’ Looks like they can all learn something from each other! Rongen learns to trust his feelings and the players learn the rules of soccer and that basic athleticism and teamwork are required to win.
Easily the most compelling part of this story could have been Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), a real fa’afafine (which roughly translates to transgender woman) player. Rongen struggles to come to terms with her gender identity as the rest of the players seamlessly accept her. A story of a trans athlete playing on a team of all men while balancing hormone usage and discrimination from other countries could have made an emotional and compelling watch. Instead, Jaiyah is relegated to a one-dimensional pawn used to teach Rongen about acceptance. At every turn, the players are robbed of their humanity in favor of Rongen’s less-than-compelling arc.
Right before their big game against Tonga, one player, Smiley (Ioane Goodhue) begins to tell a heartfelt story of his family. Instead of using this moment to flesh out an important member of the team, he is interrupted for a cheap laugh. “Maybe later,” chuckles Rongen. Of course, when it’s time for Coach Rongen to tell the harrowing story of his daughter, the players sit in silent respect, despite the fact that he had berated them for being “losers” only minutes before.
Taika Waititi’s quippy, fast-paced style has finally caught up with him. Though there are glimmers of his old charm in Next Goal Wins, it feels lost in this muddled, slightly higher-quality Disney original. The film was more concerned with self-involved gimmicks than it was with exploring its surface-level themes like “be yourself” and “work together.” While some of the supporting cast including Oscar Kightley and Kaimana deliver charming and convincing performances, lead Michael Fassbender fails to pull his weight. If you need something for a little background noise, this film isn’t offensive. But anything more? You’re better off returning to some of Waititi’s old work.
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