Filmmaker Taika Waititi has taken some wild swings in his career, from his vampire-centric faux documentary What We Do in the Shadows and the charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople to two Thor movies (one great, one not so much) and the Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit. What I would not have expected him to do is a fairly bland, standard-issue underdog sports movie about the American Samoa soccer team, which had the distinction of suffering the worst loss in World Cup history against Australia (31-0) in 2001 and never scoring a single goal since. Admittedly, the cultural specificity of the film sets it apart from other sports movies, as does the perhaps flawed emphasis on the rogue coach, Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who is brought in just as the 2014 World Cub is approaching to whip the players into shape and maybe even have a shot of turning their fate (or at least their ability to score) around.
Written by Waititi and Iain Morris, this based-on-a-true story film basically watches Rongen lose his previous coaching job in the states (at the hands of World Cup board members played by Will Arnett and Elisabeth Moss, who just happens to be Rongen’s ex-wife). They force him to take the American Samoa job, hoping he’ll pull his life together and somehow redeem himself. But Rongen picks up his old habits of drinking and not giving a crap, even as he steps off the plane to meet the head of the country’s soccer program, Tavita (Oscar Kightley). He meets the other coaches, the players, and a few of the locals (not surprisingly, Waititi regular Rachel House shows up as Tavita’s wife); the director himself shows up briefly throughout the film as the local priest who gives us sporadic narration and a few dumb jokes.
For several reasons, the most interesting player is a transgender woman named Jaiyah (Kaimana), who is beloved by her teammates and is still allowed to play on the team because she hasn’t had gender-confirmation surgery yet; she also happens to be the best player on the team and a natural leader who has spent so much time hiding from discrimination from other teams that she lacks the confidence to play or lead with authority. The bond between Rongen and Jaiyah is so strong that together they get her in playing shape before their first match. The team has been told that if it loses this game, they’ll likely be kicked out of World Cup play forever.
The coach even manages to re-recruit Nicky (Uli Latukefu), the goalie who gave up 31 points to Australia all those years ago. So the stage is set for the team’s most competitive game in ages, and watching his players work so hard and care so much about the game and winning inspires Rongen to get mentally invested in the future of this squad. This being a sports movies, naturally the coach is tempted away from the team just when they need him most. No sports cliche is left untouched, and outside of the various motivational dances that the Samoans do before each match, there’s nothing about Next Goal Wins that distinguishes it from dozens of other similar films. That being said, if the film had focused on Jaiyah’s character from the beginning, it would have been a truly brave and inspiring story, though I don’t think there’s a studio brave enough to make that movie today.
Fassbender spends most of Next Goal Wins doing his job a little too well. Like his character, he seems a bit bored and unmotivated, and that’s not especially interesting to watch, nor is it amusing. By the time he gets turned around on his own team, we’ve moved on to other, far more interesting characters, leaving his struggle in the background. Next Goal Wins certainly isn’t a terrible outing, nor is it unwatchable; it just doesn’t seem nearly as challenging or risky as most of what Waititi has given us before, and from someone like him, that’s a shame.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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