Next Goal Wins (TIFF) Review

Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins doesn’t reinvent the sports comedy, but it’s a strong, pleasant effort.

PLOT: A down-and-out football coach (Michael Fassbender) is sent to American Samoa to coach their infamously awful team.

REVIEW: Inspirational soccer (football) stories are having a moment, with Next Goal Wins another underdog story comparable to Ted Lasso. While not as deep as that occasionally profound show, Taika Waititi’s long-delayed film should put a smile on the face of anyone who likes a good underdog story a la Cool Runnings. The film is based on a documentary of the same name. It proves to be a natural fit for Waititi’s sensibilities, with him seeming more at home here with a film closer to What We Do in the Shadows or Hunt for the Wilderpeople than any of the Thor films he made or even Jojo Rabbit

Waititi himself only plays a small on-screen role, with his local priest acting as a quasi-narrator for what would come off as a perhaps cliched inspiration fable, were it not actually true. After being absent from the screen for several years, Michael Fassbender gets to try his hand at comedy, playing the aggressive coach Thomas Rongen, who is turfed from his coaching job following a few too many outbursts but given a final chance by his boss (Will Arnett) who also happens to be dating Jongen’s ex-wife (Elisabeth Moss). 

He’s sent to coach the infamously awful American Samoa team, who never lived down their devastating 31-0 loss to Australia in a FIFA qualifying match. The team’s boss, Tavita (a scene-stealing Oscar Kightley), has only one request from Rongen – to have the team score a single goal in a qualifying match. That’s easier said than done, with the team having no knowledge of the sport and Rongen himself being a borderline alcoholic.

What makes Next Goal Wins so effective is the cast, with Fassbender more likable than usual as the sarcastic Rongen. He plays the movie with a twinkle in his eye, with his sarcasm and cynicism never dialed up to the point that he becomes unpleasant to watch. The film really rests on the shoulders of the cast, most of whom have Samoan ancestry, and all rise to the occasion. Waititi regulars Kightley (who sports an ever-fading set of boobs drawn on his head as a prank for much of the film) and Rachel House do much of the comic heavy-lifting, while the consistently solid Beulah Koale plays their son, Daru, who’s one of the guys on the team with the most potential. Another standout is transgender actress Kaimana, who plays the real-life trans champ Jaiyah, who identifies as fa’afafine, a third gender present in Polynesian culture. Bigger stars like Arnett (who replaced Armie Hammer after shooting initially wrapped) and Moss have more minor roles, while other Waititi regulars like Rhys Darby, Luke Hemsworth, and Angus Sampson have cameos. 

While Next Goal Wins doesn’t do anything fresh with the inspirational sports film genre, it’s still a well-made entry, with gorgeous location shooting and a fun soundtrack of eighties classics. It’s odd that the film had such a long post-production process, with it shot back in 2019 (Hammer was only replaced in 2022, longer after the film should have been released). Waititi is clearly playing the hits here, but mid-way through this year’s edition of TIFF, amid heavier fare, it played pretty well and left a smile on my face. It won’t rank as one of his best movies, but it’s a strong, pleasant effort. 


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