Four years after premiering the Academy Award-winning film Jojo Rabbit at the Toronto International Film Festival, Taika Waititi returned to the festival this year to premiere his newest film, Next Goal Wins.
Inspired by true events depicted in a 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins follows Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a disgraced Dutch-American soccer coach, as he is hired to coach the American Samoa national soccer team. However, Rongen’s assigned task isn’t just to coach the team to their first-ever game win — he has to help them score their third-ever goal.
An underdog story is a typical trope in sports films, and Next Goal Wins is no different. Nevertheless, while predictable, Waititi still succeeds in delivering a strong underdog story. The goofy training sequences throughout the first half of the film make it clear that the American Samoan team is just not good. This is a team that is still reeling from the legacy of a humiliating, albeit historic, 31–0 loss to Australia in 2001 — the largest-ever defeat in an international soccer match. Despite their lack of success, though, the Samoan team is still easy to root for; they’re all likeable characters, imbibed with Waititi’s quirky and rather dry sense of humour.
While Waititi’s humour is a signature part of his filmmaking, it seemed as though some scenes in Next Goal Wins are purposefully extended just to include jokes. While there are jokes in the movie that certainly shine — Samoan actor Oscar Kightley as Tavita, the manager of the Football Federation of American Samoa, is a comedic standout — there are also several jokes that don’t. Waititi steps in front of the camera and takes on an acting role in this film as a priest, but his character is easily the most insufferable in the entire film.
In his previous films, like Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi’s humour was more effective because he struck a balance with the more serious themes each film explored. However, in Next Goal Wins, the pendulum is all over the place, leaving little space for the film’s already limited emotional moments. Plot points move too quickly, and Rongen’s place as an outsider in American Samoa is brushed aside within minutes.
Every character on the team is also infantilized and goofy, and while that works for comedic purposes, it portrays the American Samoan characters in an oversimplified light. This is a particular problem since Pacific Islanders have been historically underrepresented and misrepresented in the media. Building on that issue further, even though nearly the whole film takes place in American Samoa, we learn little about Samoan culture or about characters’ daily life.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Next Goal Wins is how Waititi includes Jaiyah Saelua in the narrative. Portrayed by nonbinary actor Kaimana, Saelua is fa’afafine — a third gender in Samoan society — and the first transgender woman to compete in a World Cup qualifier.
While Saelua’s identity is respected in Samoa, Rongen does not understand or accept her identity. He deadnames her, uses the wrong pronouns, and consistently belittles her during training sessions. When she finally stands up to him, Saelua is the one who has to come back and apologize for her behaviour. Later in the film, during a climatic moment centred around Saelua’s identity, Rongen delivers a pep talk that immediately seems to resolve any problems between them. It’s a scene that has the potential to be inspiring and introspective but is just disappointing. The transphobia also seems unnecessary, considering the real Rongen has never been openly transphobic.
Ultimately, Saelua seems to exist solely to help develop Rongen’s character. Considering current and ongoing attempts by major sporting organizations to exclude transgender people in sports, Waititi could have written Saelua’s character better.
Despite this, Rongen is the only character gifted with a clear arc and conflict — specifically, his journey to adapt to his new circumstances and realize that there is more to life than soccer. In American Samoa, soccer is just a game, a view that consistently conflicts with Rongen’s view of the sport. Nevertheless, this conflict directly collides with the film’s main plot — if soccer is not a serious sport in American Samoa, then why are Tavita and the rest of the team so desperate to score a goal?
While it is a fun movie, Next Goal Wins misses the mark — or the net? — with a lot of the themes it attempts to discuss. Ultimately, Waititi does deliver a message with Next Goal Wins — soccer is just a game, so just be happy. Unfortunately, it’s a message that will leave many sports fans rolling their eyes.