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Next Goal Wins.jpg

TIFF 2023: ‘Next Goal Wins’ is Too Much Taika

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 13, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 13, 2023 |


Next Goal Wins.jpg

We all love an inspirational story. What better example of community spirit and a can-do attitude than the surprisingly true tale of the American Samoan national football team? They infamously lost a 31-0 game to Australia and were crowned the worst team in the world. They wanted to change, if not to win a game then at least to score one goal. To aid them in their efforts, they were sent the temperamental Dutch-American manager Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender.)

The latest film by Taika Waititi, Next Goal Wins, is in all senses of the term a Taika Waititi film. That used to be an exciting prospect, with the New Zealand filmmaker and actor finding fame through his dry humour, a keen eye for emotional connection, and ability to retain his idiosyncrasies across genre, budget, and audience. For a while, it felt like he was the only director in the Marvel machine who still felt like himself. You certainly can’t complain that Next Goal Wins is compromised or dominated by a studio head’s notes. But you might wish that someone had reined in his increasingly tedious worst tendencies, especially for a story that deserved a more caring touch.

A deeply miscast Michael Fassbender plays Rongen, a nightmare manager sent to American Samoa because nobody else wanted the job. He’s got rage issues that fluctuate wildly depending on what the script calls for. He sounds a lot like Waititi. But so does everyone else in the film. Despite this being a culture clash tale, everyone has the same points of reference and style of talking, from Rongen to the players to Will Arnett as a somewhat sleazy football executive. There’s little to differentiate one voice from another, with only a sinfully underused Elisabeth Moss in the token estranged wife role feeling like a contrast to the Taika of it all.

It’s tough to ignore the sheer bone-headedness with which Waititi and co-screenwriter Iain Morris handle the trans aspect of this story. Kaimana plays Jaiyah Saelua, a footballer and Faʻafafine, a term for a third non-binary gender in American Samoan culture. She is immensely charming and steals the show even when presented with the most derivative and condescending version of this story. As shown in the documentary, Rongen was very matter-of-fact and respectful about his player’s gender. In Waititi’s version, Rongen asks about Jaiyah’s genitals and deliberately deadnames her for ‘motivation.’ They soon become BFFs after a quick ‘we’re both sorry’ moment so that Jaiyah can become his guide-slash-muse. The film’s most interesting performer and the story’s obvious heart barely gets an arc. It’s not quite the Green Book of trans movies as one review scathingly noted but it’s so misguided that it weighs down the rest of the film.

There are jokes here, and plenty of them. Oscar Kightley has a blast as the over-employed head of the local football federation, offering Rongen deliberately cloying faux-exotic advice to appeal to his white boy naivety. Laughs will be had, but the balance is all off. Waititi used to be the king of balancing comedy and pathos. Consider the surprise of the foster mother’s death in Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Jojo tying his mother’s shoelaces in Jojo Rabbit. His best films never eschew melancholy for absurdity but find the liminal space where both sensations work together. Next Goal Wins has no idea what to do with Rongen, an alcoholic whose obvious addiction is never dealt with here, beyond a third-act sad monologue about a tragic past that is barely hinted at in the preceding 80 minutes.

The vast and evidently talented ensemble doesn’t get much to do either. They lean towards tangible displays of empathy before the film stops for a gag or to break the fourth wall over these wacky sports movie clichés. One player turns up at the big game at the last minute but the audience has no idea that this was ever meant to be something. Waititi seems to think it silly that a sports team would ever want to be truly encouraged. When Rongen tells them to just enjoy themselves and not worry about it too much, you can’t help but infer that he’s talking to the viewer instead.

Most of the football and team training is stuck in montages, while the big game that the entire film builds up to is also poorly handled, turned into another joke rather than something to cheer for. We want to see the game! Waititi noted in his opening night speech that he changed some details because, if people wanted to see the real thing, they could watch the documentary (The film’s opening scene also has him emphasise this point, in schticky character as a minister with fake teeth.) That’s reasonable enough, but surely the adaptation should contain at least some of its source material’s verve?

It’s clear that Waititi has respect and appreciation for the American Samoan people and their way of life, a balance between hard work, easy-going joy, and dedicated faith. So why deny them the heart they so thoroughly deserve? Why let their triumph be retold with an irreverence that borders on disdain? Jokes are good and all but taking things seriously can be as well. These are real people, after all, reduced to easy gags by a guy who used to be better at this. One wonders if any of these moments of heft were left on the cutting room floor, especially since some threads seem maddeningly incomplete (again, we’re just not going to deal with the fact that the head coach is an alcoholic?)

I’m sure that Next Goal Wins will endear itself to some. Like I said, the jokes are there and the audience I saw it with laughed with gusto for a lot of it. Yet it’s tough to escape the feeling that this is a half-baked project from someone who we expect more from. I know that the whole ‘Taika Waititi backlash’ thing has been brewing for a while and the Discourse around that will be exhausting. As someone who did consider herself a fan of him, on and off the camera, it just sucks to see bad work. If it’s all not so serious and we should just relax and not care so much then why the hell are we watching?


Next Goal Wins had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will premiere in cinemas on November 17.