Does the next goal win success or failure? Our reviews
After experiencing mixed reviews overseas, Taika Waititi’s latest film premiered in New Zealand on Monday night. Here’s what we made of it.
After years of directing quintessentially acclaimed New Zealand films, Taika Waititi shot to fame in 2017 when he directed Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. He followed that up two years later with something completely different in the Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit.
Since then, Waititi has returned to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder was poorly received) and starred in TV projects like Our Flag Means Death and the much-loved Reservation Dogs. He is now back in cinema with Next Goal Wins.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, it’s the true story of the American Samoa soccer team, once considered the worst team in the world, as they attempt to qualify for the FIFA World Cup with the help of their new coach Thomas. Rongen, played here by Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender. He is joined by a supporting cast of local actors including Oscar Kightley, David Vine and Rachel House, along with Americans Will Arnett and Elisabeth Moss.
After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, critics weren’t particularly impressed with Next Goal Wins. It now sits at a lukewarm 42% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ahead of its release in New Zealand cinemas early next month, we headed to the film’s New Zealand premiere to see for ourselves.
Just watch the documentary instead
Next Goal Wins follows a soccer team on a small Pacific island as they try to score just one goal in an international match. The film features a cast of colorful characters, including players, coaches, locals and officials, all of whom loosely (or closely) resemble real people. However, the opening shot of Taika Waititi’s latest film is a shot of… Taika Waititi.
This sums up how I felt watching the film: as if I was watching a director on the phone, both in front of and behind the camera. The story itself is the stuff of Hollywood – a group of amateur players suffer embarrassing defeats to bigger football nations and a struggling professional coach is sent in to change the team. Michael Fassbender gives a strong and convincing performance as the frustrated Thomas Rongen, and the cast of football players have great chemistry. David Vine stands out as the very bad, soft-spoken coach who replaces Rongen.
Then there’s Waititi, who plays the local priest and randomly breaks the fourth wall in the opening scene to unnecessarily explain that American Samoa is extremely religious (something made clear by a number of more subtle scenes later on). There is no reason for Waititi to be at Next Goal Wins. His role is lifted, almost identically, from the druid role he played in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Why? No idea, but it sure does work.
I enjoyed the soundtrack of classic Samoan chants and enjoyed seeing the brilliance of the lesser-known cast and crew. I didn’t enjoy dealing with Gaia’s story as a Vavin player. From what I remember, and from comments she’s made since the release of this film, Gaia’s gender identity has not affected her place on the team or her relationship with Rongen. Waititi raises her gender to a point of tension (fairly expected in a Hollywood story) but doesn’t raise it enough for Rongen to feel that the clumsy teaching is justified. And while the story feels decidedly Samoan thanks to the supporting cast, there are still a few lazy gags that are less culturally sensitive and more culturally nonsensical (after a number of jokes about the team’s religion and church, they’re shown hesitantly mumbling through a popular children’s song , out of tune and out of time).
Next Goal Wins, the 2014 documentary that follows an American Samoa soccer team as it struggles to win a single game or even score a goal, is heartwarming, funny, and sensitively told. Next Goals Win , the 2023 feature film adaptation of the documentary and directed by Taika Waititi, is not. I recommend watching the documentary.
The only silver lining is that Waititi filming a Samoan film and portraying himself as a Samoan priest may finally explain why Rita Ora thinks her husband is Samoan. / Madeleine Chapman
It works best as a straight comedy
The underdog sports biopic is a tried and tested formula like the rom com. While the “next goal wins” is ostensibly based on fact, and so the “will they win or won’t they win” story is loosely rooted in reality, it is nonetheless told in a way that somehow makes you forget that these were real people.
Taika Waititi’s latest non-Marvel project Jojo Rabbit may have been divisive, but it was undoubtedly ambitious, emotional, and original. None of these things can be said about Next Goal Wins, a comedy that manages to elicit sustained laughs, a few heart-tugging Hollywood moments and some good performances. But while the film works best as a mainstream comedy, which is likely to find favor with audiences heading into the summer holidays, it fails as a biopic and, when compared to Waititi’s strongest work, falls behind the pack.
It may simply be that the cast is too unwieldy for Waititi’s skills as a director. His best works, such as Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy, focus on a small core group. At Next Goal Wins, he has a whole team that makes us care. Aside from the story of Fafen Jaya’s player, and to a lesser extent Taveta, Oscar Keightley’s team manager, we learn very little about the players or their lives. In true sports biopic fashion, most of the scenes from the team’s training sessions are shown in montages, although it would have been better to linger a little longer on the characters themselves. Somehow, Waititi has had enough time to appear as himself in an odd cameo role.
Michael Fassbender stars as real-life coach Thomas Rongen, and the supporting cast of familiar faces are a joy to watch when they get the chance. But by telling the story from the perspective of the least interesting character (Rengen), and even then barely scratching the surface of his story until the final act, I can’t help but feel like there was a much better movie that could have been made with him. This group of characters and this touching story. / Stuart Suman Lund
Good cast, good laughs
My Thoughts and Feelings: Next Goal Wins was a fun film, navigating through some cultural and spiritual barriers with island humor. In a strange opening scene, Takia’s character explains how religious the island is… and that’s how most Pasifika move. The pace and environment of the island was enough to put me in a good mood (or maybe it was the wine) while the beautiful singing brought me back to the church. Something in the chant vibrates your eardrums differently – IYKYK.
David Fine who plays Ace is the MVP for me. As a coach he speaks very softly and is only there for his people. We all need an ace in our lives, someone to get us back on the slow track with some positivity and remind us that whatever it is, it’s okay. Good cast, good laughs. / Tina Teller
Next Goal Wins opens in theaters on December 7, with previews beginning on December 3.