Next Goal Wins
Taika Waititi's predictable sports film is weighed down by too many jokes
Taika Waititi has deftly flitted between multiple mediums in a short amount of time, he’s quietly become a TV mogul, heralding three shows at the same time (Reservation Dogs (2021-2023), What We Do in the Shadows (2019-), and Our Flag Means Death (2022-)), directed blockbuster Marvel movies (Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Thor: Love & Thunder (2022)), Oscar winning movies (Jojo Rabbit (2019)) and has a burgeoning scene-stealing acting career (The Mandalorian (2019-), Free Guy (2021)). His latest directing foray comes in the form of sports movie Next Goal Wins (2023).
Next Goal Wins is the true story of how the American Samoa national soccer team, considered the worst in its sport of all time (after losing 31-0 to Australia in an official game), hires downtrodden and reluctant Dutch coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) in 2011 as they seek, not to win, but to score the first international goal in the history of their nation.
Next Goal Wins brings the typical Waititi humor of witty self-aware snippets. His continual push to bringing indigenous people’s stories to the screen, be they in TV with Reservation Dogs or film with Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), is an admirable one, not only because it brings much needed representation to the screen, but also gives chances to a dearth of underutilized writing and acting talent. With Next Goal Wins, it is the breakouts of Kaimana as the fearless gender-fluid player Jaiyah, Oscar Knightley as the cheery American Samoa Federation president Tavita, and David Fane as the gentle Assistant Coach Ace that captivates viewers.
Fassbender is convincing enough in the lead role, but is largely relegated to a cliché of a character arc, and only truly shows his range and talent in a final speech scene. Having Next Goal Wins revolve particularly around his character when there are infinitely more interesting indigenous supporting characters around him robs the film of its novelty and impact. It also plays into the problematic “white savior learning life lessons from indigenous cultures” trope that feels incredibly played-out by 2023. The film itself references the cliché of its character focus and plays a couple of jokes off it, yet it doesn’t excuse the fact that it is still following through with this stale structure.
Waititi plays by rather predictable sports movie rules, with emotional arcs and beats that should be parody at this point. While Ted Lasso (2020-2023) took on a similar concept, it flipped it to bring novelty; grumpy team and community learn from cheery head coach. Sports films have a set structure for the simple reason that it’s effective; Next Goal Wins even references inspirations, from The Karate Kid (1984) to Any Given Sunday (1999). Yet Waititi holds his own film back by finding an incessant need to pepper jokes every couple of seconds. This is particularly irritating in the final act and dramatic climax. Waititi fell into a similar exhausting barrage of jokes in Thor: Love & Thunder watering down narrative moments that should have been left to breathe.
In the end, Next Goal Wins works as a predictable sports film that brings a teasing peek at indigenous stories that should have been the center of the story. Waititi weighs down viewers with a joke mandate every two seconds, especially heckling the promising emotional moments in the finale. Thankfully the flaws are not enough to bring down the overall inspiring good feeling you’re left with by the time the credits roll, which at the end of the day is the objective of any good sports film.