Sometimes, it’s the biggest losers that teach you how to win.
Set in 2001, Next Goal Wins tells the follows coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a disgraced soccer coach who finds his career in jeopardy after (another) outburst on the field. In an effort to deal with him, his superiors transfer him to coach in American Samoa, a team still reeling from their scathing (and record-setting) 31-0 FIFA loss. As the World Cup Qualifiers are approaching, Rongen steps onto the coaching role to try to salvage the disorganized squad’s reputation and help them score a single goal to prove their worth.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi, Next Goal Wins is a feel-good film that sits nicely in the pantheon of sports comedies. Powered by his own brand of unique humor, Waititi ensures that Next Goal is fun, deliriously silly and fueled by heart.
With a positive vibe that’s reminiscent of Cool Runnings, this underdog story celebrates its culture and heritage with freewheeling glee. Based on the true story of the American Samoa soccer team, Waititi taps into all the stereotypes of the ‘sports comedy’ genre. Admittedly, this tale of a group of misfits who can’t seem to come together but eventually begin to find their footing feels a bit familiar. Nonetheless, even if Next Goal relies heavily on old tropes, Waititi still manages to make it entirely his own. Waititi has always had a unique voice and here, he takes the the opportunity to play with the game in his own way. (In fact, without saying too much, the film’s climax may be an example of the director at his best due to the way that he plays with structure.)
While Fassbender doesn’t normally step into comedic roles, that seems to work to his advantage here. Normally known for his intensity, the actor takes the opportunity to laugh at himself. Playing Rongen as a man who struggles with inner rage and disappointment, Next Goal gives him the opportunity to show that he’s in on the joke.
Even so, the true star of this film remains Kaimana In the role of transgender teammate, Jaiyah Saelua. Taking centre stage, Kaimana brings a fury and strength to their journey in a world of toxic male oppression. True to life, Saelua became a groundbreaking personality who challenged gender barriers as the first openly transgender player amidst the World Cup circuit. Although Waititi’s handling of their gender struggle has found some criticism—a scene involving an apology stands out in particular—there’s little doubt that he has worked hard to elevate and empower their character arc. (In fact, within Next Goal, Saelua’s story becomes almost more important than the game itself.)
Like other films of this nature, Next Goal is meant to elevate the underdog and honour what can be accomplished when everyone works together. But it’s true power lies within its journey of humility. For example, when he first (and reluctantly) arrives in American Samoa, Rongen is touted as saviour for their soccer ineptitude.
But, Rongen is no hero.
Instead, he reveals himself to be a broken and proud man who believes that everyone needs to conform to his standards, no matter how outdated (or even inappropriate) they may be. This immediately causes conflict within the American Samoan world, a place where they believe that everyone deserves to be celebrated for who they are. Battling his own inner demons, Rongen struggles to adapt to this more laid-back approach. Nevertheless, as he humbles himself, his heart gradually begins to heal.
You see, in this story, it’s the ‘saviour’ who needs to be saved.
As the final buzzer sounds, Next Goal Wins proves to be an utter delight for audiences. With its ridiculous humour and goofy tone, the film feels like a throwback to some of the great sports comedies of yesteryear. Built upon an utterly charming performance by Kaimana, Next Goal has all that it needs to prove itself a winner.
Next Goal Wins is available in theatres on Friday, October 20th, 2023.