The Plot: American Samoa had a bad track record in international football, infamously losing 31-0 to Australia and being bottom of the FIFA rankings. Their national football team has yet to score a goal, let alone win a match… but yet they keep trying. Their hearts are determined. Less determined is Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a football coach with anger management issues who has been given a choice: lose his job or travel to American Samoa and coach this team of no-hopers. At first, Thomas doesn’t quite know what to make of this team including transgender player Jaiyah (Kaimana) – still able to qualify for now. They have little expertise and don’t know one end of the pitch from the other. It’s going to take a lot of work to get this team into shape and at least score a goal but Thomas thinks they shouldn’t stop there…
The Verdict: Shot four years ago, it’s taken some time for Taika Waititi’s latest film Next Goal Wins to emerge from the dressing room and get onto the pitch. Better late than never then. We can at least be thankful that it’s loaded with Waititi’s trademark quirky Kiwi humour and a bursting heart full of goodwill for the characters and a deep reverence for the people of American Samoa. A tiny island of less than 50,000 people, it’s the setting for this dramatisation of the events depicted in the charming 2014 documentary of the same name. Though, Waititi makes it clear early on that some liberties have been taken with the story. The tagline describes it as ‘a kinda true story that pretty much actually happened’. That’s fine then, with Waititi directing viewers to the documentary if they want the full facts. For his version, there’s an element of the fairytale and the mythical.
Along with co-writer Iain Morris, Waititi positions the story as that of a tentative, symbiotic relationship between a cranky foreign coach and the ragtag team of players who are very much the wrong stuff. People love an underdog story though and while this film plays through familiar enough beats (a star player who needs a confidence boost, a disillusioned goalie who just needs another chance), it does so with an underscoring of character and emotional truth. As a talented multi-hyphenate, Waititi has a great ability to transcend culture and setting, making his stories universal without sacrificing any of the local colour and character. It’s just as well that he’s moved on from his Marvel phase as he was in danger of being gobbled up by the corporate machine. He’s more at home handling these smaller films with big hearts, while tying into his own indigenous roots.
Next Goal Wins doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is – and that’s a blessing and a curse. Those familiar with the documentary will know what to expect, so there aren’t too many surprises here. Those unfamiliar with the documentary will find this dramatisation predictably predictable, but not without a sense of purpose. The script unfolds from page to page in a straightforward fashion, but Waititi doesn’t drill down too much to figure out what makes Thomas Rongen (quite a character in real life) tick. There are hints of a personal tragedy offscreen which shuts him down occasionally, contrasted with the open and giving nature of the islanders. Somewhere in between there is common ground on and off the pitch. This is where there’s a blessing in the burgeoning friendship between Thomas and Jaiyah, sensitively portrayed by Fassbender and Kaimana without resorting to a saccharine overdose.
This version of Next Goal Wins is unlikely to win awards or eclipse its predecessor, but it does stand instead as a respectable companion piece which is warmly funny and feelgood. It’s on winning, Cool Runnings-style form and that’s enough to warrant a light recommendation for Christmas viewing. American Samoa is currently 188 in the FIFA world rankings, so that’s inspiring enough.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Next Goal Wins
On winning form
Next Goal Wins (UK / USA / 12A / 104 mins)
In short: On winning form
Directed by Taika Waititi.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, Rachel House, Elisabeth Moss.