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Next Goal Wins

Can you call a film formulaic if it's based on things that really happened? Maybe. As with any movie, it's all about the tone and style: the choices made by the storytellers. "Next Goal Wins" is a case study, unfortunately. It's an inspirational football comedy, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi (two Thor films, "Jojo Rabbit," et al) with Iain Morris ("The Inbetweeners"). The screenplay is based on events that actually happened: In 2014, Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen was sent to American Samoa to train their team so that they could qualify for the FIFA World Cup 13 years after suffering the worst loss in World Cup history (31-0) against Australia. The end product works despite itself, almost inexplicably so at times. It may, in fact, be the most persuasive example yet of the indestructibility of the underdog sports movie template, which has served untold numbers of films. "Next Goal Wins" could have been commissioned as part of a scientific experiment to answer the question, "Is the underdog sports movie format so foolproof that it'll make people cry and cheer even if the movie is competent at best, and deeply irritating at worst?"

From a fourth-wall-breaking prologue in which Waititi (as the narrator, a local priest) mugs for the camera and tells us that this is a true story with embellishments and you'll never know what's what, through the expository montage about the American Samoan team's complete humiliation and demoralization, through the arrival of the depressed, alcoholic, antisocial Rongen and the assembly and betterment of the team and the portrayal of American Samoa as the South Pacific version of the cornball eccentric small towns in '90s American comedies such as "Doc Hollywood" and "My Cousin Vinny" through the upbeat, against-all-odds happy ending, "Next Goal Wins" is pleasantly listless. It occasionally seems to be raising a mocking eyebrow at us while it barely tries (and not just when Waititi's narrator chimes in). It also has the off-putting habit of calling our attention to cliched moments by quoting dialogue and situations from other sports movies (notably 'The Karate Kid" and "Any Given Sunday") and other movies, period (Rongen cribs dialogue from "Taken" and, if my ear doesn't mistake me, "Malice").  

It's as if Waititi and company are tacitly admitting that it doesn't matter if the movie is great or even particularly good. Our Pavlovian conditioning as underdog sports movie fans means we'll become emotionally invested even if the script is filled with placeholder dialogue and even if most of the movie doesn't so much seem directed as lightly overseen, like a yard cleanup or the loading of a truck on moving day—and even if the choice of protagonist is the least interesting one possible for this particular story.

Which brings us to Rongen, played by Michael Fassbender. He's front-and-center from start to finish, and there isn't a single other character on the island who wouldn't have made a more surprising and fascinating protagonist. Most of the team's players and family members are barely developed as characters. The script keeps working their names and summaries of their personal stories into dialogue to remind us who they are and reassure us that they haven't been completely marginalized. The film is primarily concerned with the American Samoan victory as a way of forcing Rongen to come to terms with his alcoholism and the presumed cause of it. Apparently, he was screwing up so badly in his previous job that the league's top executives—which include Rongen's ex-wife Gail, played by Elisabeth Moss, and her new boyfriend, a smug and scatterbrained president played by Will Arnett—sent him to the island hoping the new assignment would help him save himself. (A surprising amount of this movie is Apple TV's "Ted Lasso," but with the clean-living, relentlessly positive title character replaced by a miserable drunk.)

The other characters exist in relation to Rongen and his unhappiness—including Tavita (Oscar Kightley), the head of the American Samoa soccer federation, who's treated as a cuddly spiritual sherpa for the hero. Rongen is such an unrelentingly sour and abusive jerk to everyone throughout most of the film's running time that your mind may sometimes become preoccupied with thoughts like, "Is this a nation of saints whose only purpose in life is to grin and bear it as tourists insult them?" and "If Rongen were just a regular person rather than a coach, he would get beaten up a lot." (Fassbender's performance, by the way, is terrible, maybe the worst he's ever given; at times he seems to be doing a mediocre impression of Bryan Cranston as Walter White on "Breaking Bad," and there's a vacantness in his eyes during "emotional" scenes that’s unnerving.)

Rongen's "redemption arc" is threaded through his relationship with one of the players, Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), a fa'afafine (the "third gender" in American Samoa, typically transgender or nonbinary). Saelua, like everyone else in this story, is based on a real person: a center back for the American Samoa national team who eventually transitioned to female and was the first openly non-gender binary player to compete in a FIFA qualifying match. In other words, a person unlike any you've seen in a sports movie and a true pioneer. 

Yet Saelua is written as sort of a stiff-upper-lip sub-Jackie Robinson type who smiles anxiously or looks away in hurt and suffers through various indignities and insults by Rongen out of love for the sport, a desire to compete, and (it becomes clear) a belief that there's a decent person inside of the coach who can be brought out with a little bit of kindness. Waititi and his collaborators stop just short of having Saelua exist solely to redeem and improve the coach as a human being. But they seem to know that they're skating on a knife-edge of condescension because they have the indigenous characters joke about Rongen as an embodiment of the "white savior" trope in storytelling, yet they never vigorously push against it, even though Rongen fails and fails and fails his team and himself. 

Rongen deadnames Saelua during a heated moment at practice just to twist the knife a bit more. The film doesn't have the delicacy or insight to do anything with this disturbing moment except shrug it off until later and let it stand as just another example of how unhappy Rongen is (he didn't really mean it, you see; it was just the booze and depression talking). Saelua eventually forgives and forgets and is the first person to extend an olive branch (in the form of visiting Rongen's bungalow with a match videotape for them both to study) even though Rongen should be doing the extending. This paves the way for a "big reveal" that is supposed to make us forgive Rongen because of how much he's suffered. The clean-scrubbed corporate version of progressive enlightenment so proudly showcased in the Saelua-Rongen subplot, as well as in Rongen's relationship with the community he openly resents, is characteristic of Waititi, who in 2019 boldly made a film satirizing Adolph Hitler. (Hitler never recovered.)

"Next Goal Wins" becomes a rah-rah, crowd-pleasing sports picture in its final stretch when the squad goes into action and defies the oddsmakers. But even then, it's oddly sour, with the hot-tempered Rongen proving yet again how awful he is at handling moments that don't go the way he wants. Material better suited to a '70s antihero movie is given the sketch comedy treatment instead. "Next Goal Wins" exists as proof of the invulnerability of a certain movie template and as a Frankenstein patchwork of previous films. There's a bit of "Cool Runnings" (a white guy coaches a nonwhite team in another country) and a bit of "The Bad News Bears" (a boozing jerk of a coach finds purpose through sports) and pieces of films about the capacity of team sports to heal traumas. You'll cheer anyway because the team members are all decent and deserve happiness and a win. But saying a movie succeeds despite itself is not a compliment. 

In theaters now.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Film Credits

Next Goal Wins movie poster

Next Goal Wins (2023)

Rated PG-13 for some strong language and crude material.

103 minutes


Michael Fassbender as Thomas Rongen

Oscar Kightley as Tavita

Kaimana as Jaiyah Saelua

David Fane as Ace

Rachel House as Ruth

Beulah Koale as Daru

Will Arnett as Alex Magnussen

Elisabeth Moss as Gail

Uli Latukefu as Nicky Salapu

Chris Alosio as Jonah

Taika Waititi as Pasteur







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