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Review: ‘Next Goals Wins’ Kicks Taika Waititi’s Comedy Chops Into Less Than Inspirational Territory

Writer/director Taika Waititi fictionalizes a true story’s facts of the American Samoa soccer team with trademark humour during the world premiere of Next Goals Wins at the Toronto International Film Festival…

“Dear Lord, thank you for sending us Mr. Rongen. We’ve become quite attached to him. It’s like finding a little lost white kid at the mall and telling him which way to go.”

After successfully establishing himself as a cultural icon in writing and directing the last decade, Taika Waititi has marveled audiences with stories of World War II and comic book superheroes. Winning the Academy Award for writing 2019’s Jojo Rabbit helped to revolutionize Waititi’s career in depicting semi-true stories with dark comedy and Mel Brooks-like cameos. His newest film, Next Goal Wins, is a crowd-pleasing look at a struggling soccer team through Waititi’s lens, a sports comedy worth its weight in star power and queer identity.

Michael Fassbender stars as the real-life Thomas Rongen, an alcoholic Dutch-American soccer coach failing at his job for Major League Soccer clubs. He’s given two options for his career trajectory: Either be fired and retire from the sport or coach the American Samoa national team. The hitch with the latter option is that the American Samoa team is horrendous. More than that, they might be the worst team ever to play the game. He reluctantly takes the position, moves to the island nation of less than 50,000 people, and does his best to transform this group of misfits into an elite team.

Despite the culture shock, an absurdly terrible set of players, pressure from his MLS executive ex-wife (Elisabeth Moss) and her boyfriend (Will Arnett), and a personal struggle connecting with his daughter, Thomas is still somehow viewed as a savior to the American Samoan people. All they ask in return is for the team to score one goal. Just one goal. Not even to win a game or have the chance at a playoff berth…all they want is one goal. A David vs Goliath plot in an international locale and funny characters that give a disgruntled coach a run for his money, what more could audiences ask for?

Based on actual events and the 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins toys with its true story nature and takes its cue from Waititi and fellow scribe Iain Morris’ bonkers screenplay. Effortlessly funny, the film exaggerates the squad’s inner conflicts, Thomas Rongen’s command over the team, and the various players that make this account compelling. Twisting an already riveting story’s premise is risky, but Waititi and crew know how to inject humor into an already outlandish narrative.

The major piece of this ostensibly inspirational sports dramedy that feels out of place but is decidedly factual is actor Kaimana’s portrayal of Jaiyah Saelua, the first trans player in the sport’s history to compete in a World Cup game. While Saelua’s entire backstory is not explored in Next Goal Wins, their introduction and influence on Thomas Rongen’s coaching style is a primary focus. The film might start like a take on Bad News Bears, but with Saelua at the center, the movie turns towards identity and how trans people fit into traditional Samoan society.

We’ve seen these sports films before, with Major League and Any Given Sunday as obvious examples that Taika Waititi might have used to construct this ragtag group that audiences fundamentally root for. However, cultural differences, trans inclusivity, and determination against all odds are themes that separate this typical Waititi film from ultimately going off the rails. It’s by far and away not the inspirational tale it tries to weave, but Fassbender and Kaimana make for a great team. The family components and quasi-slapstick elements don’t always fit in this story, yet Waititi knows how to bring the embellishments back down to the ground when need be.

Next Goal Wins speaks to the mixture of courage and comedy without sparking a boastful attitude. It’s simply a fun time at the movies without overstepping its welcome at a runtime of less than two hours. Director Taika Waititi doubles as the narrator of a story about a scrappy team looking for answers from the gods and ushering in a new sense of pride in sports unseen at the national level. 

It’s heartwarming, altogether weird, and farcical to an exponential degree.

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