Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pitctures releases the film in theaters on Friday, November 17.

The first person you see on screen in Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” is Taika Waititi. The director himself shows up wearing a long mustache and priestly garb as the quasi narrator of his own movie. He’s doing a funny voice, and explaining the themes of what we are about to watch. This intro highlights perhaps the main issue with this occasionally funny but frequently messy sports movie: The dominant voice is Waititi’s, to the extent that we can’t hear any of the other characters. “Next Goal Wins” is a movie that gets too wrapped up in its own quirk to develop any compelling arcs. 

Waititi adapts the film from the 2014 documentary of the same name by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison about American Samoa’s national soccer team that, in 2001, had the worst loss in the history of international competition. In 2011, the team brought on Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, played in the fictionalized version by Michael Fassbender, with the hopes of getting at least incrementally better. 

It’s a tale that has all the makings of a classically inspirational sports movie, but Waititi, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Iain Morris, focuses on the goofy comedy elements of the story, almost to a detriment. It’s the rare opportunity where engaging in a few more tropes of the genre might have been necessary as a grounding force. 

The movie opens after another punishing loss for the American Samoa team. Head of the soccer federation in the country Tavita (Oscar Kightley) — encouraged by his wife (Waititi regular Rachel House) — decides that he’s going to reach out to the U.S. governing body of the sport to advertise a job in the remote location. (In a Waititi touch, Tavita’s revelation comes after he has boobs drawn on his face after losing a bet.) 

The U.S. sends Thomas, who has recently flamed out of high profile gigs with anger management issues. With no other options, Thomas gets on a plane and is immediately greeted by the ebullient members of the community who welcome his presence as a way to achieve their aim: Scoring just one goal in competition play. Thomas, on the other hand, responds with a version of Liam Neeson’s “Taken” speech, another detail that feels less like a natural character move and more like an inside joke between filmmakers. 

Of course, as is expected in this situation, Thomas’ initial drunken frustration softens when he actually gets to know the culture and the players and invests in their success. Still, Waititi and Morris’ screenplay doesn’t spend all that much time on the members of the team, save for Jaiyah (Kaimana), a non-binary trans woman and fa’afafine, which in the Polynesian world is a widely accepted “third gender.” Thomas is at first cruel to Jaiyah, at one point using her deadname as a way of taunting her, but they develop a friendship that in turn makes her his star player and team captain. 

(From L-R): Hilo Pelesasa, Ioane Goodhue, Kaimana and Beulah Koale in NEXT GOAL WINS. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.© 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
“Next Goal Wins”Courtesy Searchlight Pictures, exclusive to IndieWire

Despite a lovely performance from Kaimana — who has the most dramatic material to tackle — Waititi’s treatment of gender is flippant. Though Jaiyah is not discriminated against in her own country, “Next Goal Wins” highlights (and tries to get some laughs out of) her otherness and seems unequipped to handle discussions of hormones and other facets of transness. 

More broadly, the movie always fumbles when anything gets too serious — including a third act speech that reveals Thomas’ tragic backstory. This hasn’t always been a problem for Waititi as a filmmaker, especially in an expertly balanced work like “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” but here he seems eager to undercut emotion with a gag or another film reference. (Those abound: There are nods to “The Matrix,” “The Karate Kid,” and “Any Given Sunday.”) 

The tone makes Michael Fassbender an odd fit for the center of the narrative. Fassbender is a great but chilly actor, which makes him a natural outsider. He even looks odd on the beach and in the waves with his dyed blonde hair. But when he speaks, Thomas is often saddled with the unique rhythms of Waititi himself, which Fassbender can’t quite master. Jokiness isn’t a good fit for him. Even more lost, however, is Elisabeth Moss as an American soccer official and the wife from whom Thomas is now separated. 

"Next Goal Wins"
“Next Goal Wins”Searchlight

As the team heads toward the minor victory that will end the movie, there are the requisite training montages and other hallmarks of the inspirational sports movie, which Waititi wants to both engage with and lightly parody. Sometimes his structural experiments undercut the pace, especially in the final match, which is partially told in flashback. 

It’s still a pleasure to watch actors like Kightley and House bicker, and to see a star such as Kaimana emerge. (I also always welcome Rhys Darby, no matter how out of place he may be here.) And yet “Next Goal Wins” is largely a misfire, one that’s too unwilling to stop kidding around for even the most important of moments.

Grade: C

“Next Goal Wins” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it in theaters on November 17, 2023.

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