Synopsis: The story of the infamously terrible American Samoa soccer team, known for a brutal 2001 FIFA match they lost 31-0.
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, Uli Latukefu, Rachel House, Kaimana, David Fane, Beulah Koale, Chris Alosio, Taika Waititi, Will Arnett, Rhys Darby
Director: Taika Waititi
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: There’s nothing that a packed theater loves more than getting behind a good underdog. An electric zing rushes over the crowd when our vested interest gets that much closer to success. So, I can understand why the early audiences for Next Goal Wins at the Toronto International Film Festival came out of their screenings buzzing. Much like 1993’s Cool Runnings (which is frequently similar in story and structure), the inspiring story of American Samoa’s bid to pull itself up from last place in the World Cup rankings deserves its say on film, there’s no doubt about it.
Unfortunately, Next Goal Wins is not the movie to do it. I’m pretty sure co-writer/director Taika Waititi’s latest is actively bad for much of its 105 minutes, this despite a last-ditch rally cry that only amounts to a modicum of audience rousing, likely to prepare them with enough energy to gather their belongings and go home. For a movie about community, it’s an isolating experience to sit through. That’s mainly because Waititi doesn’t know how to handle interpersonal drama as well as he does absurd humor. By the time I got around to seeing it, on one of the final days of the festival, it was hard to drum up much enthusiasm for such mechanical entertainment.
Opening with Waititi (Thor: Love and Thunder) himself in a ridiculous cameo as a mystic priest that introduces the characters and acts as an irritating semi-narrator, we meet Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender, The Killer), a Dutch soccer coach who has seen better days. About to lose his footing in the world of Association football, he’s given a final reprieve: become the coach of the American Samoa team and stop their losing streak. If they don’t turn things around, he’ll be out of a job, and the South Pacific territory will lose their right to have an officially recognized team.
Rongen accepts the job out of desperation and arrives on the island with a gigantic chip on his shoulder, made worse by the rural locale and the sorry state of his team. Rongen doesn’t want to be there, and the players don’t believe in themselves enough because no one has lit a flame of inspiration for them. As with all sports movies, it only takes time for the coach and players to learn from one another, but it’s an uphill climb. With the season moving forward and different issues with players changing his outlook, Rongen will make professional gains with the team…but will it be enough to score a more significant victory for them all?
Fassbender looks bored and is badly miscast (and knows it) in Next Goal Wins, and you wish the far more appealing American Samoan cast were truly the stars. This should be a story about the team first and foremost. Instead, it’s a laboriously formulaic slog through an obnoxious knob’s redemptive arc that has nothing new to add to the sports/underdog genre. Worst of all, and more people praising the movie need to note this, the way Waititi’s script handles a non-binary trans woman (played with grace by the mononymous Kaimana) is so backward-facing from a 2023 viewpoint that you’ll be looking for a DeLorean to help you find your way home.