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Soccer player Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana) leads the American Samoa team in a haka-like chant and dance on a green field in Next Goal Wins Photo: TIFF

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Taika Waititi’s soccer drama Next Goal Wins shoots for thrills and fails to score

It’s a real-life underdog sports drama that loses the best things about the actual story

This review of Next Goal Wins comes from the film’s premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The film will be released in November.

Sports dramas are a surefire way to please a crowd. There are few things as primed for comfort viewing, excitement, and last-minute twists as a movie or TV show revolving around a sport. The whole genre is built around the opportunity for rousing speeches, intense montages, feats of athleticism, and cathartic triumph. And sports are cross-cultural enough to offer some universal storytelling beats while staying distinctive for every community and every sport. It’s as true for the story of women’s baseball in A League of Their Own as it is for the high school volleyball anime Haikyu!!, with its exhilarating microcosm of friendship and perseverance.

Enter Thor: Ragnarok director and Our Flag Means Death star Taika Waititi, known for his crowd-pleasing comedies where lovable misfit characters endure hardships with a quirky sense of humor. Waititi’s long-awaited soccer movie Next Goal Wins, a time capsule buried pre-COVID (it wrapped production in January 2020), includes every beat of a standard underdog sports story, told with Waititi’s signature New Zealand style of humor. It features zero surprises, but the jokes mostly land, and the characters are charming. The problem is that the film never really conveys any of the reasons people care about soccer.

The story follows the mostly true story of the American Samoa football team, record-holders for one of the worst soccer losses in history. In the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, they lost to Australia 31-0. Then they attempted a comeback under Dutch American coach Thomas Rongen (played in this movie by Michael Fassbender, who can’t seem to keep up with the script’s comedic rhythm).

In Waititi’s version of the story, all of American Samoa hopes and prays for the day when their team can win — or at least score a single goal, which they have never done. (That’s the first of many changes Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris bring to the team’s actual history.) The fans are used to the mixture of hope and despair involved in rooting for a team and watching them lose again and again. That’s the most relatable part of the movie. The script touches on World Cup qualifications; the intricate, complicated, and often dumb FIFA rules for each continent; and the historic rivalries between nations. But most of all, it’s deprecatingly funny about the sensation of knowing your home team sucks, but rooting for it, and hoping the next game will be different.

So it’s too bad the film mostly shoves that idea aside. There’s some on-screen play, and a few clever jokes about the qualification system. (American Samoa doesn’t even play big teams; it just goes up against other small islands with not-so-good teams.) But comparatively little of the movie feels specific in the ways that make a sports drama exciting. There’s little thought about how this team plays this sport — or even why. The island’s relationship with football and the team’s strategies are hand-waived into oblivion. Little of Next Goal Wins ever expresses why the country would even try to compete in football again after its humiliating loss.

Consider, by comparison, Cool Runnings, the 1993 movie about the first Jamaican bobsled team to enter international competition. That movie tries to explain why the characters care about the sport, and why it means so much to them to compete in the Winter Olympics. There’s none of that in Next Goal Wins. In trying to be broadly universal, Waititi’s script loses the specificity and satisfaction that won awards and acclaim for the original version of Next Goal Wins, the 2014 documentary about this same team’s comeback.

While Waititi’s fictionalized take on Next Goal Wins is flawed and messy as a sports movie, though, it works as a comedy, at least for those who appreciate Waititi’s style. His voice is so intrinsic to the film that his face is literally the first thing on screen. (Much like with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he shows up as a priest with funny facial hair.) Waititi serves as an omnipresent narrator and source of context throughout the film.

That often distracts from the story at hand and the more interesting characters, like faʻafafine player Jaiyah Saelua (played by nonbinary actor Kaimana), who winds up as the film’s heart and soul. Unfortunately, while Jaiyah’s story is gripping and historically significant, the film noticeably spends its time using Jaiyah as a prop for Coach Rongen’s story of overcoming his transphobia. At least the film does mostly avoid falling to the conventions of white savior stories, by confronting Rongen’s role in the story head-on.

Coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) sits at a blue picnic table across from soccer player Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana) with the ocean as a backdrop in Next Goal Wins Photo: TIFF

It also pivots in key moments. Even though a white, foreign coach is the catalyst for big changes on the team, Next Goal Wins never portrays him as a genius, or even as a smart leader. He’s no Ted Lasso — he’s the underdog who needs saving by the rest of the team, which is full of memorable if somewhat underserved characters. (There’s only so much screen time available for 11 players plus reserves in a 103-minute movie.)

Next Goal Wins fails to properly capture what made the story of the American Samoa national football team so compelling, by attempting to make a film so universal that it discards the sport itself as unimportant. Which it might be in terms of letting the audience relate to the team as individuals. But it’s such a cookie-cutter underdog story that it rarely moves past the most superficial “Care because this movie says you need to care” level.

There just isn’t much to differentiate Next Goal Wins from any other cliche-ridden underdog sports story. But what does salvage it is Taika Waititi’s ability to create quirky worlds filled with lovable characters. The catharsis of a feel-good sports tale hits exactly as expected in the climactic match. But in such a broad and bland movie, that one moment of familiar triumph is an empty gesture, one that isn’t particularly memorable after the credits roll. This is no Ted Lasso, and it didn’t have to be. But it didn’t have to be so by-the-numbers, either.

Next Goal Wins will debut in theaters on Nov. 17.

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