Next Goal Wins

Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, Taika Waititi's eighth film draws upon a rousing true story but sticks with the easiest game plan.
Sarah Ward
Published on December 22, 2023


American Samoa's 31–0 loss to Australia in 2001 wasn't the biggest-ever defeat in football history, but it set the world record for the largest trouncing in an international match. It's also the scoreline behind an impassioned quest to achieve something that the US territory in the South Pacific Ocean had never done before in soccer: kick a goal. And, it's the starting point for a documentary and a comedy both called Next Goal Wins, with the first arriving in 2014 and the second now Taika Waititi's eighth feature. Each charts the squad's attempt to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and each tells an underdog tale. One strikes charmingly and winningly, the other keeps deserving red cards — and it's Waititi's long-delayed flick, which was initially filmed before the pandemic, underwent reshoots in 2021, then finally premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, that shouldn't be on the pitch.

Since leaping from New Zealand indies Eagle vs Shark, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Waititi might've won an Oscar for Jojo Rabbit; however, his best post-Thor: Ragnarok work has been on the small screen. Neither Jojo Rabbit nor Thor: Love and Thunder reached the filmmaker's past heights, but the hilarious US TV spinoff of What We Do in the Shadows, sublime Indigenous American dramedy Reservation Dogs and heartwarming pirate rom-com Our Flag Means Death have all proven gems. The current underwhelming cinema streak continues with Next Goal Wins, which is as forceful as his last non-MCU picture in wanting to be a quirky, silly and sweet crowd-pleaser, and as clumsy, awkward and thinly sketched. While new takes on already-covered stories never mean that the originals are binned, sending viewers sprinting towards Mike Brett and Steve Jamison's (On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World)) iteration of Next Goal Wins can't have been Waititi's intention.

The dramatised Next Goal Wins covers the same overall details as its doco predecessor, with American Samoa enlisting Dutch American coach Thomas Rongen to endeavour to help turn their footballing fate around. The Bad News Bears, Slap Shot, The Mighty Ducks and Cool Runnings have just as much influence upon latest spin on the story as reality, though, in an uncomplicated join-the-dots, tick-the-boxes, revel-in-the-tropes and keep-serving-up-montages fashion. Accordingly, whether or not you actually know the specifics — and regardless of your awareness of American Samoa's sporting talents or just soccer in general — you know the path that Waititi's movie follows. So, in comes a down-on-his-luck outsider being given a final shot at success through training and guiding others, and reluctant about it, to whip a ragtag group with potential into shape.

Michael Fassbender plays Rongen, finally making his acting return with two roles in the same year — in The Killer and this — after being absent from screens since 2019's X-Men: Dark Phoenix. For audiences Down Under, it has worked out for the best that his hitman turn for David Fincher made it to the big screen first; Fassbender does what he can in Next Goal Wins, but only one person could've made the most of Waititi's material. That figure: the helmer himself, who is the first person seen on-screen, in fact, as a priest welcoming the audience to a story of "whoa" not woe. Fassbender was never going to bend it like Waititi, and he's given a thankless task in being asked to try — including while Next Goal Wins' writer/director (who co-scripts with The Inbetweeners' Iain Morris) gets him quoting Taken.

Sent to American Samoa by a soccer board led by his estranged wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale) and her new boyfriend Alex (Will Arnett, The Morning Show), rather than given much choice, Rongen sees the gig as a demotion. His response: doing the bare minimum, drinking, being combative and showing such little interest in the team that he may as well not be there. At least his one-note behaviour is grounded in the narrative, albeit with tugging at heartstrings the main aim as more of Rongen's history is slowly revealed. The same can't be said for the film's lack of care about anyone but the imported coach, plus centre back and faʻafafine Jaiyah Saelua (debutant Kaimana). As the first trans woman to play in a World Cup qualifier, the latter, a member of Polynesian society's third gender, should be at the forefront of the movie. That said, she shouldn't simply be the force motivating Rongen to grow up, take his job seriously, and deal with his issues and traumas — and his journey shouldn't involve deadnaming her, then asking about her genitals.

Luminous, thoughtful and engaging, Kaimana gives Next Goal Wins' best performance. A better picture would've made Jaiyah its focus, avoided using her as a mechanism to push along Rongen's redemption arc and not left her achievements to postscript, but that isn't Waititi's approach. As such, in a film that heroes not dwelling on what might've been as long as you're giving your all, wondering how this flick could've turned out if more than a cursory effort was evident is another outcome. The cast is there — Oscar Kightley (The Breaker Upperers) gives the second most-memorable performance as Tavita, who leads American Samoa's Football Federation, hosts a popular TV show about who's getting off the plane at the airport and has a son (Beulah Koale, Bad Behaviour) on the squad; Our Flag Means Death's Rhys Darby, David Fane and Rachel House also feature; and even a Hemsworth (Bosch & Rockit's Luke) pops up — but not the willingness to deviate from the easiest game plan.

When Next Goal Wins pilfers Taken's "special set of skills" speech early, it's a believe-it moment: believe that embracing cliches while purporting to wink and nod at them is the film's strategy, that is. The Karate Kid and Any Given Sunday also get referenced — and sometimes have lines of dialogue lifted — and Ted Lasso, just with a cantankerous drunk rather than a perennial optimist, provides blatant inspiration. IRL sports figures do indeed glean cues from screens. In Australia in 2001, AFL coach Leigh Matthews famously quoted Predator's "if it bleeds, we can kill it" to stir the Brisbane Lions to an upset win against reigning premiers Essendon, which started a 20-game streak that saw them beat the same team again to claim that year's premiership. All that's sparked in Next Goal Wins is a filmmaker's certainty that an inherently rousing true tale will remain exactly that no matter how cartoonishly and formulaically — including in its sunny visuals — it's presented. Alas, cheering for the American Samoa men's national football team isn't the same as cheering with the latest movie about them.


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