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Next Goal Wins (A Movie Review)


Starring Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss, Uli Latukefu, Chris Alosio, Lehi Makisi Falepapalangi, Semu Filipo, Ioane Goodhue, Rhys Darby, Angus Sampson, Luke Hemsworth, Kaitlyn Dever, Hio Pelesasa, David Tu'itupou, Levy Tuiala, Loretta Ables Sayre, Frankie Adams and Taika Waititi.

Screenplay by Taika Waititi & Iain Morris.

Directed by Taika Waititi.

Distributed by Searchlight Pictures. 103 minutes. Rated PG-13.

It’s always amusing when people from offbeat different places attach on to sports, no matter how good or bad (usually bad) they may be, just for pure love of the game.

True stories like these have become fodder for Hollywood in the past. For example, there was the Jamaican Bobsled team, an oddball group who became something of an international sensation when they competed in the Winter Olympics starting in 1988. It was such an odd idea – where could they learn the bobsled in the tropics of Jamaica? – that it caught the attention of the world and was eventually turned into the popular 1993 feel-good comedy Cool Runnings with John Candy. Of course, they weren’t great at the sport, but they got better over the years, eventually even getting a gold medal in 2000.

Then there was Eddie the Eagle – the first British ski jumper to compete in the Olympics. (Oddly, he also started in the 1988 Winter Olympics – what was going on in Calgary that year?) He also had little actual talent for the sport – he finished last in both competitions he competed in – but his regular guy enthusiasm made him a bit of a pop culture icon briefly. His story was also turned into a film, the 2016 film Eddie the Eagle starring Taron Egerton.

And now, we have the American Samoan national football (soccer) squad. They were long considered one of the weakest teams on the circuit, including losing a game to Australia by an all-time record score of futility, 31-0.

It seems like a natural fit for Taika Waititi to downshift a bit. It feels like a return to his roots after several years in the Hollywood grind – low-key early New Zealand oddball comic charmers like Eagle vs. Shark and Hunt For the Wilderpeople.

Based upon a 2014 documentary about the team, Next Goal Wins makes a nice palate cleanser for the filmmaker after helming two bombastic Thor films (only one really successfully) and making the surreal comic art film Jo Jo Rabbit.

Not that there is all that much to the story of Next Goal Wins – but it is a simple (and yet eccentric, because Waititi couldn’t be anything else) bit of formula filmmaking. This film is not looking to rule the box office (like, say Thor: Ragnarök) or to make a run at Oscar gold (like Jo Jo Rabbit). It’s just trying to be a fun diversion.

The film sort of plays up the football team’s ineptitude and small-time roots. The film often says that the team had never scored a goal and their only real wish was to score at least once – but they scored a goal in their first game in 1983, which was about 38 years before this film takes place in 2011. (And undoubtedly, they scored at least some in the decades between. In fact, apparently, they even won at least one game in the years before this film takes place.) Perhaps they meant in that season…. But they were historically bad. Of that, no one will argue.

Their savior – or sort of – might be Thomas Rongen (Fassbender). Rongen is an American coach and scout who himself needs some salvation – his daughter died recently in an accident, he was separated from his wife (Moss), he was drinking way too much and had become completely jaded. His problems multiplied to the point where he was given an ultimatum – go down to American Samoa and coach their team, or never work in the sport again.

Thus starts a typical fish out of water comedy, in which the hard-headed and driven new coach has to learn to deal with the more laid-back players and customs of American Samoa. If you have any question what will eventually happen then you haven’t seen a sports film in recent decades. However, the culture clash and eccentric characters keep everything interesting and funny.

Sometimes a team – or a movie – doesn’t have to go to a championship to become big winners. Sometimes they just need to score some goals. Next Goal Wins will never become a beloved classic sports tale, but damned if they don’t score some goals.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: November 16, 2023.


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