As assured by Taika Waititi’s silly priest character at the outset of Next Goal Wins, the film that follows is a mostly true story. It tells the tale of the American Samoa national football team who single-handedly put to bed the stupid refrain often stated by fun-hating fun-haters when they proudly declare that they don’t enjoy watching soccer:
“It’s so boring. The final score is usually like 2-1.”
They say this in willful ignorance of the fact that an American football game will often end at 14-7, which is essentially 2-1, and hockey games will often end at 2-1, which is literally 2-1. American Football makes a lot of people stupid.
Anywho, in 2001, American Samoa suffered a 31-0 loss to Australia — the worst loss in international football history. THIRTY-ONE TO ZERO!! Take that, American Football Dudes!
Next Goal Wins is based on the documentary of the same name, which chronicles American Samoa’s attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, and the reluctant coach tasked with getting them there. His name is Thomas Rongen, a retired and notoriously prickly player who, after losing his job coaching American men’s soccer when they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2011, was given a choice: Coach the American Samoa team, or hit the unemployment line. Naturally he chose the former.
Played here by a flaxen-haired Michael Fassbender, Rongen is portrayed as a real dickhead. He drinks too much, lazies his way through practice, and does just about everything in his power to disrespect his players, up to and including misgendering and deadnaming their one trans player (her name is Jaiyah, and her story is deserving of a whole movie on its own). His priggish attitude runs polar opposite to the general lifestyle of the American Samoan people. As depicted in the film, their culture is laid back and generally polite. Most of the citizens are more interested in living in the present moment than they are in struggling for glory, and their football team reflects this attitude.
It’s aaaaalmost as if they could use a little of Rongen’s passion. It’s aaaaaalmost as if Rongen could use a little of their sunny perspective. IT’S AAAAALMOST AS IF WE HAVE A MOVIE ON OUR HANDS, PEOPLE!
Despite being a true story (and a hell of a commercial for the documentary on which it is based), Next Goal Wins ends up feeling rather formulaic. It’s your standard underdog story, but with the added bonus of Waititi’s brand of dry oddball humor. It’s a breezy watch, and one can’t help but to get caught up in a tried and true sports movie narrative, but one also gets the sense that there’s a ton of movie sitting on the cutting room floor. This is most evident in the arc of Rongen himself. His development from curmudgeon with a heart of gold to “a whole new man” is uneven. The material meant to motivate him, namely the romance between his ex-wife and his old boss (with some additional exacerbating family issues that I sense are meant to be revealed in the moment), remains underdeveloped, peeking it’s head into the story as needed. His ex is played by Elisabeth Moss — a sure fire sign that the character was meant to do much more.
This is likely so that the film could be more focused on the team, as it should be, but even so, they suffer from the truncated cut as well. The supporting cast is excellent, with a highlight on Oscar Kightley and Rachel House as the team owner and his wife, as well as Kaimana, as the aforementioned Jaiyah. It’s a ragtag group of underdogs, each with their own recognizable character trait that allows the film to elevate each in certain moments for the sake of humor. Again, it feels like there’s a version of this story in which each of these players gets a full arc, but there are only threads of this version scattered throughout. Even the in which we get to see our newly trained team take to the field in an effort to clear the bad taste of their epic failure from the mouth of the international sports world would benefit from more screen time. I want to see them play (although there is a bit that has fun with the fact that we don’t see much football which is absolutely hilarious, but I maintain that there’s a middle ground).
The chopped-down nature of the script lends itself to a narrative economy that allows certain dramatic beats to hit hard, but these instances feel less intentional and more like happy accidents. It’s so odd to say this since it’s basically against the rules of comedy movies, but I wish this movie were a lot longer. And if it were, I don’t think it would suffer from comedic overkill. It’s a tremendously charming tale that nails almost all of the comedy, and it’s all of such light vintage that a few more servings wouldn’t upset the pallate.
Even so, the final product is too much fun to deny. It’s nice to walk out the theater feeling inspired by a warm, moving comedy with a big heart and a unique setting. Perhaps the depth I seek is in the documentary. I’ll know soon enough.
Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Starring Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Eachel House, Lehi Makisi Falepapalangi
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes