NEXT GOAL WINS Review: Michael Fassbender Takes On the Worst Soccer Team in the World
Coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is assigned to rehabilitate the world’s worst soccer team in Next Goal Wins, Taika Waititi’s comedic interpretation of the true story of American Samoa’s journey from last place losers to global inspiration.
After suffering a record-breaking 31-0 loss to Australia in the 2002 World Cup Qualifiers, American Samoa’s national soccer team is scrambling to reassert itself on the international stage. As an American territory, their team is supported by the US’s soccer association, who assigns former pro and journeyman coach Thomas Rongen the unenviable task of bringing respectability to a squad that no one takes seriously, including Rongen himself.
Admittedly far from top-tier contenders, American Samoa’s soccer commission head Tavita (Oscar Kightley) has a simple, reasonable request: score one goal. That’s it. They don’t have to win, they don’t need to advance, he just wants his team to do the one thing they’d never done in international competition, score a goal. When Rongen gets a look at his team, however, this seemingly achievable goal seems like an insurmountable obstacle. However, when he and the players finally start seeing eye to eye, this goal seems within reach.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins follows in the spirit of Waititi’s previous solo projects, like 2010’s Boy and 2016’s incredible Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as good-hearted comedies with something to say about the nature of family. Unlike those films, however, Waititi is perhaps a bit too free with his madcap sense of humor, which leaves the film quite uneven tonally and puts it on a back foot in the early going.
When we’re introduced to the American Samoan team, they are basically cartoon characters, completely unable to perform the simplest tasks like controlling the ball or even kicking it without cartoonish ricochets that result in half the team being incapacitated. It’s the wrong tone, and the director’s cameo as a pastor with a goofy speech impediment – a la his Wilderpeople character, but much goofier – is a sour note that grates the nerves any time he’s on screen.
The story as it existed in real life has enough dramatic twists and turns – and inherent comedy – to more than justify a feature film, but Waititi’s contrived comedic flourishes do it no favors. Thankfully, once the film moves into the second and third acts, the script focuses more on the story at hand and allows the gentle comedy to flow from the situations, rather than attempting to create it where it doesn’t exist. What starts like a bargain bin version of Shaolin Soccer eventually morphs into a sweeter, more empathetic Cool Runnings, and I mean that as a high compliment.
While Fassbender is clearly the lead in the film, Next Goal Wins is far more of an ensemble project than one might expect. With a supporting cast led by a brilliant debut performance from non-binary actor Kaimana as the real life non-binary trailblazer Jaiyah -- the first transgender player on an international soccer team -- Waititi puts a long overdue spotlight on, not only AAPI characters, but also performers, who all do great work.
As wonderful as the film is conceptually, that hokey first act really keeps it from greatness. Absolutely saturated with jokes that just don’t land, it really drags until the film frees itself from the desperate desire to be funny at all costs.
Once that happens, it’s a genuine delight, but it’s more like two-thirds of a pretty good movie, rather than one whole one. Next Goal Wins finds itself falling firmly in the bottom third of Waititi’s overwhelmingly impressive oeuvre. But, all that being said, Next Goal Wins definitely sticks the landing, and for anyone who enjoys a good underdog story, they don’t get much more underdoggish than this.
The film opens Friday, November 17, only in movie theaters. Visit the official site for more information.
Next Goal Wins
- Taika Waititi
- Taika Waititi
- Iain Morris
- Michael Fassbender
- Oscar Kightley