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Next Goal Wins Review

November 17, 2023 | Posted by Joseph Lee
Next Goal Wins Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures
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Next Goal Wins Review  

* Michael Fassbender as Thomas Rongen
* Oscar Kightley as Tavita
* Kaimana as Jaiyah Saelua
* Will Arnett as Alex Magnussen
* Elisabeth Moss as Gail
* Uli Latukefu as Nicky Salapu

Story: Next Goal Wins follows the infamously terrible American Samoa soccer team, known for a brutal 2001 FIFA match they lost 31-0. With the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers approaching, the team hires down-on-his-luck, maverick coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) hoping he will turn the world’s worst soccer team around in this humorous and heartfelt underdog story.

Depending on who you ask, Taika Waititi’s name doesn’t mean as much as it used to. Apparently the last Thor movie he made got him a lot of hatred online. But before that, he had a very solid filmography and even got an Oscar nomination for Jojo Rabbit. Apparently making only a passable comic book movie means your career is forever tainted, if you believe some people. Anyway, it’s strange to see a filmmaker that is normally out-of-the-box play it so safe with something like a sports comedy. That’s exactly what he does with Next Goal Wins, and it’s arguably worse for it.

The film follows the real life exploits of the American Samoa team, who went without winning a single game, or even scoring a goal, for years. That is, until Thomas Rongen, who’s also doing poorly, is basically forced to be their coach. In a lot of ways, the story is very similar to that of Cool Runnings, which was also based on a true story. A team no one thinks can win and a coach looking for redemption find each other and try to succeed anyway. It’s amazing that there are two stories that happened like this in real life, when it’s the formula for every movie of this type in existence.

Waititi attempts to insert his humor into but it’s clear he’s treating the material with kid gloves and doesn’t want to make a mockery of things. As a result, it feels like a film that could have been directed by anybody. It’s a light-hearted, wholesome sports movie with a few likeable characters and not a lot of drama.

The film had an angle to tell that story, as it does spend some time with Jaiyah Saelua, the first openly nonbinary and trans woman to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. As the character is presented in the film, most seem accepting of her, outside of their competition in a brief moment that’s later forgotten. She also has some strife with Coach Rongen, which includes his decision to deadname her, but it never really goes anywhere. It’s brushed off and they continue with a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Maybe that’s how it happened in real life, as it seems they are close today.

It’s a shame because Kaimana turns in a really strong performance and makes her perhaps the most likeable character of the movie. But she’s often not given a lot to work with and any time the character looks like they may struggle, it’s brushed aside to get back to half-hearted humor and a sports story not even the team seems worried about. Obviously no one would want such Jaiyah’s story milked for dramatic content just for the hell of it, but it does seem she’s done a disservice overall. She plays an important role in the documentary this movie is based on from 2014. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t do enough for her or Kaimana.

The same could be said for that of Coach Rongen, who is played by Michael Fassbender here. Fassbender seems bored at times and it’s hard to blame him. He does well enough but he doesn’t have much to work with. Like Jaiyah, anything with weight that could be explored just isn’t. We see him occasionally feeling sad or angry, and we see him eventually become more mellow, but it never feels earned. It just kind of happens. Rongen gets over his issues because that’s how these stories go.

The lack of dramatic tension, at all, could be looked over if the movie leaned more into its comedy. Sadly, it really doesn’t. It has a chuckle here and there, but the jokes are inoffensive and forgetful. As mentioned earlier, you could be forgiven if you didn’t realize this was written by the same man who did What We Do in the Shadows. That’s not to say it’s not attempting to be funny, it’s just very lighthearted comedy, like a joke book for kids.

So what about the big game? How is that handled? Obviously, a game where a team is trying to qualify for the FIFA World Cup will get people invested, right? Not so much. Even the American Samoa team doesn’t seem to care all that much if they win. The end of the game is told matter-of-factly in a flashback and then we jump to the finale of the film. The message of the movie seems to be that winning doesn’t really matter. Nothing matters, as long as you’re enjoying yourself. It’s a fine message, I suppose, but not one that makes for a compelling story.

That’s not to say that Next Goal Wins isn’t enjoyable. I watched this as surprise for AMC’s Screen Unseen and it was a pleasant surprise for a Monday evening. As long as you temper your expectations and enjoy it for what it is, a bare bones, kind of humorous sports movie, you won’t be disappointed.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
Next Goal Wins is an inoffensive, wholesome comedy that never tries to be anything more than what it is. It follows the standard underdog sports movie formula to the letter, while never taking time to develop more of its characters. However it has a genial sense of humor and its leads (particularly newcomer Kaimana) do very well with what they have. It's a harmless, entertaining enough diversion with zero surprises, and there's nothing wrong with that.

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Next Goal Wins, Joseph Lee