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'Next Goal Wins'  TIFF Review: Not another winner for Taika Waititi


Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

 

Coasting on plenty of goodwill from his Oscar winning “Jojo Rabbit,” and having built enough cachet within the Marvel framework so he can do a one for them and one for himself, if anyone could have turned the inspirational underdog story of the biggest losers in the FIFA world cup, the American Samoa soccer league, into something noteworthy, it should’ve been Taiki Waititi. Yet, his long delayed sports comedy “Next Goal Wins” misses the net, and never slows down long enough to make you care about the camaraderie of the team or deliver on the ingenious premise borrowed from the documentary of the same name. 


That 2014 documentary by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison chronicled the American Samoa national soccer team after they got demolished in the 2001 FIFA World Cup finals 31-0 and brought in Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, played in the film by Micheal Fassbender, with aspirations of getting the team out of last place and not being the laughing stock in the international community. It’s the type of motivational narrative Hollywood loves to scoop up and feed en masse to audiences across the globe. 


Which makes sense considering the crew at the center of the film are an easy batch to root for, especially as the movie opens with a crippling loss and all you want to do is hug them. In a last ditch effort to remain relevant, the head of the soccer federation in American Samoa (Oscar Kightley) pleads with the U.S to send in reinforcements. They send Thomas, who is infamous for his anger episodes after flaming out on the national stage, and he’s immediately greeted with the cheery, bushy-eyed culture of the natives. One where most of them hold several jobs, and the sole police officer on duty’s idea of a high speed chase is going 35mph. It’s a fancy bit of world building Waititi doesn’t quite flesh out beyond a cheap punchline. 


Thomas’s objective is simple: score a single goal in a competitive game. (Easier said than done). Of course, the newly minted coach is initially sour on the team, but in time comes around and wants them to succeed. Except the screenplay by Waititi, and co-writer Iain Morris, doesn’t give the teammates much time to shine. Aside from Jaiyah (Kaimana), a non-binary transgender woman, (of which, Thomas deadnames her, to show thematically he’s capable of growth, before eventually naming her team captain), we never get an idea of the team’s strength or weaknesses. Let alone a shred of character development. 


Kaimana turns in a nuanced performance, but Waititi’s handling of topics related to hormones and gender dynamics are somewhat cringeworthy, including a few jokes made at her expense that caused some walkouts at the world premiere screening in Toronto. There’s also a stagnant rhythm in “Next Goal Wins” and Fassbender, who must shoulder the film’s emotional beats, can’t sell the big third act speech wherein we learn about a tragic loss in what felt like an afterthought to the script. 


Even the climatic soccer match fails to garner much excitement to the point Waititi makes the odd choice of having most of it relied via third person, undercutting any tension or suspense in the process. It’s a decision that suggests the filmmaker was either too lazy to film the sequences or thought it was more dramatic to have someone read it like yesterday’s ESPN highlights. It’s abrupt, incredibly boring, and just one of several disappointing moments in a movie that, like the team it's focused on, was brimming with potential. 


Grade: C-


NEXT GOAL WINS world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it in theaters Friday, November 17th.


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