Fresh off the mixed reception to last year’s Thor: Love & Thunder, writer/director Taiki Waititi ventures back to the indie studio, delivering a formulaic “based on a true story” underdog sports comedy. An inspirational tale, co-written by Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners), which goes back to 2014 when Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongon was exiled to American Samoa to whip up a team of misfits with the goal of not necessarily winning a game but getting just one goal.
That’s right. “One Goal” is a more accurate title than Next Goal Wins, but here we are. In 2001, the American Samoa team suffered the worst loss in World Cup history (31-0) against Australia, in merely a qualifying round. Years, later, all the team’s owner, Tavitia (Oscar Knightley), wants is an end to such a horrible streak.
Starring The Killer himself, Michael Fassbender, is Waititi’s latest a goal! Or a fumble? (Yes, I know that applies to American football, but bear with me!)
Next Goal Wins is the Venn diagram between Waititi’s humor feeling played out and being the umpteenth sports flick that ticks too many boxes. Grumpy alcoholic coach – check. A small town that reminds the coach “what really matters” – check. And so on. Regardless, is the film enjoyable enough to watch on a plane, streaming, etc? Sure, the cast is solid, the Pacific island setting is pleasant, and something unique or even special arises every now and then. It’s just that when those moments occur, they’re quickly glossed over so the film can finish by its 100 min runtime.
The biggest offender is also one of the film’s strongest aspects. The focus on teammate Jaijah (played by non-binary actor Kaimana) could have been its own film. In real life, Jaija became the first transgender player in international soccer and, eventually, an activist and a coach for FIFA. As played by Kaimana, she’s a welcome presence. Warm, relatable, and flawed, in other words, human. Yet the script can’t quite decide how her life can best be used to highlight Thomas’ arc as a middle-aged guy trying to overcome his own depression.
At times, Jaijah is an awkward challenge to the bigoted Thomas, who deadnames her at one point. Not only can this be triggering for some audience members, but it’s dealt with all too cleanly. Thomas is a jerk and then a reconciliation. They move on. Again, in under two hours, there’s not quite enough time to dive into the gender politics being addressed. Other times, Jaijah is a stand-in of sorts for Thomas’ relationship with his daughter. Yet when Thomas meets her early on, the way the scene is shot suggests he finds her attractive. Pick a lane, Waititti.
The rest of the cast are all quite likable. Knightley as Tavita, and Waititi regular, Rachel House, who plays his spouse Ruth, both push “quirky and lovable” as far they can without being grating. In fact, I wish we saw more of Ruth’s character with or without her husband. She has a fun moment that plays up Thomas’ ignorance of the island’s customs and manages to be assured and funny. While Waititi can be accused of peppering his films with characters one wished more time was spent, the cast, including Elizabeth Moss and Will Arnett as Americans, all work to make each character beat memorable even if most are hardly fleshed out.
Strangely, it’s Taikia Waititi as the island’s priest and the film’s narrator that falls flat. While the other performers execute the “cute deadpan,” the director’s signature style, the filmmaker annunciates all his lines like some annoyingly out-of-place Cheshire cat. Thankfully, he’s barely in the film. Better still, he never pops up in any scene of significance.
Late review full disclosure: I am not a sports fan, yet some of my favorite inspiring flicks are sports-themed. From the boxing blows of the Rocky series to the mind games of The Queen’s Gambit, I can appreciate a story that recognizes that beyond bats, balls, and stock cars is the emotional connection with people who succeed when the world says they can’t. One wishes Next Goal Wins would have brought more to the playing field than well-trodden tropes. Still, as an old-school rental or even a matinee game on, I suppose.