Next Goal Wins
2023, PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Taika Waititi. Starring Taika Waititi, Michael Fassbender, Kaimana, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, David Fane.
REVIEWED By Alejandra Martinez, Fri., Nov. 17, 2023
“This story is about two islands, and one of them is a man,” says our narrator (Waititi as an American Samoan priest). In 2001, the American Samoa football team lost to Australia in a crushing 31-0 defeat: the worst loss in the history of the sport. Thirteen years later, in an attempt to make a comeback and qualify for a second chance at victory, they find themselves in the hands of Thomas Rongen (Fassbender). An alcoholic, curmudgeonly Dutch American football coach, he's given a choice: be sent to American Samoa to work a miracle and help the team qualify for the World Cup, or be fired. He chooses the former and makes his way to the U.S. territory, where he has to rethink his usual coaching tactics, learn and accept the local culture, and ultimately open up.
Rongen is the least interesting part of the movie, with the real heart and humor found in the American Samoan players on the team. They are all incredibly dedicated to the sport, holding down multiple jobs to keep the team running, and are all determined to have fun while playing, a fact that clashes with Rongen’s obsessive need to win. Their sensibilities confuse and frustrate him. This is uncomfortably and especially true when he meets team member Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), a faʻafafine, or third gender person in Samoan culture. Jaiyah’s gender identity as a trans and nonbinary woman is confounding to Rongen, and their interactions are the messiest, most confounding parts of the film. A series of befuddling narrative choices come across as strange and weirdly regressive given the onslaught of vitriol and legislative hate the trans community faces on a day-to-day basis. It’s unclear if the events in the film happened in real life, although the actual Saelua has been supportive of the film.
Aside from being bafflingly backward, the jokes at work are lazy and flat. In fact, a majority of them are simply pop culture references, which can be funny if you’re in the know, but wear out their welcome after a while. Having a character compare something to The Matrix or The Karate Kid can be funny the first few times, but after it becomes a running joke, it feels like low-hanging fruit. Not even its cast, which is lovely and doing their best with the material at hand (especially Kaimana, and Kightley as the head of the Football Federation American Samoa), can save it from feeling trite.
It’s a shame that Waititi’s return to Indigenous-centered filmmaking is marred by regressive narrative choices and lazy jokes. Otherwise, we might have had a real winner on our hands.