The career of Taika Waititi has soared in the last five years to the point where we may have reached oversaturation. Or perhaps Waititi is just being spread too thin. Either way, his newest film Next Goal Wins is one of his weakest, tied with his last one Thor: Love and Thunder. It is starting to feel like he should take a break and get back to the charming sensibilities that won over so many with his unusual style.
From what I can gather, Next Goal Wins has had a cursed production process. Filmed way back in 2019, the film has sat on a shelf for years. It then went through reshoots to replace Armie Hammer with Will Arnett after his public kink shaming. The film may also have been delayed due to the film's star, Michael Fassbender, and his domestic abuse allegations. All of this isn't obvious while watching the film. In fact, the film feels oddly rushed for something that has been in limbo for 4 years.
Next Goal Wins is innocuous enough, harkening back to Cool Runnings as it tells the story of an alcoholic rage case of a coach who is forced to lead the worst soccer team in the world, American Samoa. While its intention is relatively innocent, Waititi's voice is somewhat pungent. His blend of childish adults, irreverent asides, and deadpan cuteness can be charming. However, here it often cuts against the sincerity of the story. He routinely calls attention to sports film conventions but rarely subverts them. Next Goal Wins quickly acknowledges that this could be a white savior narrative and then promptly lets it be one.
Based on the true story of the American Samoa team, the film follows Thomas Rongen (Fassbender) who after being almost fired is tasked with trying to make the team "not the worst." There is a modest goal of trying to make one goal as the team lost at the 2002 World Cup qualifier to Australia 31-0. Along the way, Thomas is poised to learn how to accept the American Samoa view on life.
Next Goal Wins centers itself on Rongen and how this embittered man moves from resentment and holding on to a tragedy to being an okay guy. He learns to "have fun" so to speak thanks to the band of misfits he has to coach. Fassbender plays Rongen with a permanent scowl and is in stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky players. We get training montages, the big game, and every other sports film cliche you can think of here. There is a strain to much of the picture as a result of these routine beats.
Waititi appears in the film to narrate it, donning a huge silly mustache. If you chuckle at the sight of him, then you may get more out of the film than I did. What I did get from Next Goal Wins is the sense of the American Samoa people who are often loveable and funny. Waititi however casts mostly New Zealand actors to portray them. However, that isn't the film's biggest mishap. At the core of this story is trans soccer player Jaiyah Saelua. She is by far the most interesting aspect here and is played wonderfully by non-binary performer Kaimana. When the film focuses on this aspect and the tough decision Jaiyah had to make about whether to continue to take hormones that could get her kicked off the team, it is actually a compelling sports drama. It is a shame this part of the story is only given a small amount of the film's modest runtime. Kaimana and Fassbender have real chemistry as they bond and learn about each other's trauma.