Next Goal Wins : Movie Review

Posted by Eddie Pasa on November 13, 2023 in / No Comments


In the 13 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve only brought my mom to one screening, and I’m kicking myself for not doing so until Next Goal Wins. This one’s for her.

I’m convinced that the cinematic underdog story needs to be told every so often, if only to keep the “I can beat the big guy!” spirit alive. While all of these films follow the same formula – in the case of Next Goal Wins, it’s the American Samoan national football team that doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of competing against more skilled and talented teams – there’s always something to like about them. No matter how rote films like this can be, there’s an immense drawing power they have which sometimes makes the eventual triumph (or near-triumph) all the sweeter.

But that power usually depends on how well we get to know the characters we need to get behind. And because director/co-writer Taika Waititi brings his own fast and loose, stick-and-move comedic style to Next Goal Wins, we don’t really get to sit with anyone long enough to firm up our attachments. What Waititi wants us to do is to fall in love with the American Samoan team en masse so we can devote our attention to the struggling Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a disgraced football coach given this last-resort job of getting the lowest-ranked FIFA team up to snuff.

The typical “White Savior” theme gets played out to its fullest, with this interloper being at odds with everything before accepting his role, his players, and his new country, whereupon the people likewise accept him and help him through his troubles. Even the “I didn’t teach you – you taught me” chestnut gets to take a little walk here, sporting its own spin for this outing. However, Waititi strikes an odd tone with his direction and we can’t quite tell if it’s meant as spoof or if we’re to take it seriously. For sure, we laugh heartily in all the spots he wants, but the more serious bits come almost too late, making us wonder, “Do we care about this or not?”

Rongen’s story is teased out from beginning to end, and by that time, we’re almost not concerned at all about what drives him to drink heavily and give into rage-filled outbursts at his players. There’s some kind of sadness behind his actions, but it’s made so inferential, all we’re allowed to focus on is his bluster and how it’s going to make him an even bigger prick in the eyes of his new squad. The script asks Michael Fassbender to play Rongen as three different people: the guy whose new team receives the brunt of misdirected anger, a husband separated from his wife, and a pensive man who seems to have lost something and can’t get it back, all of which Fassbender sinks his teeth into and comes out swinging.

Painted with broad strokes and earning our sympathies and hearts, the team and its owner have a more laid-back approach to life, gazing in abject befuddlement at this strutting, roaring coach giving them orders and barking at them to be better rather than getting more involved and guiding them. They can’t believe he can’t understand or appreciate their own idiosyncratic routines – stopping to pray when a bell rings, tending to multiple jobs, respecting a fa’afafine (simplified: trans women regarded as special beings in American Samoan culture) for whom she is, among others.

As you can tell, friction rules the roost, but most of the time, we’re hoping that Rongen can drop whatever baggage he has and just enjoy what he’s been given. To him, it’s the crap end of the stick; he’s used to actual footballers and accommodations better than the relative hut granted to him. But all he has to do is open his eyes a little more to see he’s in a beautiful place that wants him to be part of a welcoming group whose sole wish is to score one goal. Of course, Waititi and Iain Morris’ script willingly keeps his eyes shut, prolonging the “stranger in a strange land” discomfort.

Balancing out this by-the-numbers film is an insane amount of happiness and lightheartedness Waititi shovels upon us. The plot may be ho-hum, but the actors opposite Fassbender bring a spirited earnestness and calm to defuse the hard-edged mood that accompanies their new coach. It’s almost as if Waititi enabled everyone else to be the voice of reason – including a swaggering FIFA executive (who’s written as the man currently involved with Rongen’s wife) played by Will Arnett – countering Rongen’s standoffishness.

Kaimana stands out as Jaiyah Saelua, a footballer and fa’afafine (both Kaimana and Jaiyah share this title) who struggles to be respected by Rongen and winds up making the best connection with him. As her teammates, Beulah Koale, Uli Latukefu, Semu Filipo, and the other actors weave a strong network of support and brotherly love, bonds forged through their 0-31 loss in a disastrous FIFA World Cup qualifying match. This tight-knit band may not be much on the field, but they are warriors in their hearts, becoming one of the best cinematic sports teams in recent history.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Next Goal Wins, Searchlight PicturesAlong with Lachlan Milne’s gorgeous cinematography capturing the lush greens and seaside vistas of American Samoa (played by Honolulu, HI), every actor gently nudges Next Goal Wins out of its “been there, done that”ness to fill our souls with delight. Based on the documentary of the same name, Waititi’s adaptation is a fast and fun film that doesn’t stop trying to earn our smiles and laughs; even though there’s a dark undercurrent of tension and pain wrought by the new coach, there’s always something popping up to lighten the mood amid Fassbender’s thundering performance. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Next Goal Wins makes this wheel spin freely, no matter how wobbly it might get on the way.

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Eddie Pasa

Eddie is a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). Since starting in 2010 at The Rogers Revue, Eddie has written for Reel Film News (now defunct), co-founded DC Filmdom, and writes occasionally for Gunaxin. When not reviewing movies, he's spending time with his wife and children, repeat-viewing favorites on Blu-Ray, working for rebranding agency Mekanic, or playing acoustic shows and DJing across the DC/MD/VA area. Special thanks go to Jenn Carlson, Moira and Ari Pasa, Viki Nova at City Dock Digital in Annapolis, Mike Parsons, Philip Van Der Vossen, and Dean Rogers.

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