Directed By Taika Waititi
Starring – Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Will Arnett
The Plot – Story of the American Samoa soccer team, who suffered the worst loss in World Cup history, losing to Australia 31-0 in 2001. With the 2014 World Cup approaching, the team recruits a down on his luck, maverick coach (Fassbender) to help turn their fate around.
Rated PG-13 for some strong adult language and crude material
Waititi taps into real life for his first sports biopic, and while “Next Goal Wins” is plagued by overwhelming familiarity, there are some unique ingredients to his direction that makes this a more than entertaining investment. For starters, the film and its personality are committed to the vibes of the American Samoa island, both in the technical components like the soundtrack featuring an abundance of Samoan hymns, as well as jaw-droppingly gorgeous shots of island inside of the cinematography from longtime Waititi collaborator Lachlan Milne, but also the overall mood of the script’s tone, which lends itself appeasingly to Taika’s unique sense of humor. There are issues with the comedy that I will get to later, but when it works is when the material lends itself towards a caustically dry delivery that occasionally borders mean-spirited or shock, lending itself towards more than a few impactful deliveries that did bring me some laughs for the occasion. In mentioning Milne’s influence once more over the presentation, his in-game sequences, while brief to the consistency of the film’s 98 minute run time, are executed with precision, both in the clarity of the game’s detections, but also the many beneficial angles in and around the field, leaving the game itself easy to digest, and full of continuous momentum that gives it the kind of tension and urgency that works wonderfully for what hangs in the balance within this tiny island. The script is further aided by another layered performance from Fassbender, but also a few breakout turns from Oscar Knightley and Kaimana, who keep this from being a one man show. Fassbender’s Thomas is definitey a flawed protagonist, but Michael has always been seamless in executing the internal anguish and longing of regret to the characters he channels, and while his experience with comedy is among his least explored avenues, his deliveries here emphasize the fish out of water perspective that he takes as the new man on this island, and for Knightley and Kaimana, they each breed several scene-stealing instances that in the case of the former, pushes the comic envelope with an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, and in the latter elicits a refreshing trans subplot to the proceedings, which is not only responsible to the real life character who she is based on, but also integral to the screenplay here, as ignoring it would create more awkwardness than addressing it head on, through the eyes of a stuffy soccer conservative.
There’s a scene in the movie where Fassbender watches “Any Given Sunday” for inspiration on his pre-game speech to his team, and while the scene is used for laughs, it highlights an even bigger issue with the screenplay as one that ultimately keeps it from ever finding its own voice. Because of such, “Next Goal Wins” feels like an assembly of sports biopic cliches from predecessors who not only did it more thoroughly with exploration, but more importantly did it first to evade such ingrained familiarity. Elements like a humiliating team initially, a hotshot coach sent to save them, who actually discovers that it’s them who saves him, an overtly evil antagonist team who continuously breathe down their necks, and an abundance of musical montages that double for the kind of on-screen improvement for the team that it can’t properly muster in a 98 minute run time that leaves it’s storytelling continuously rushing. These are obviously just a few of the familiar elements, but ones that vividly convey how Waititi is never able to find a unique voice of his own within the confines of a sports biopic, in turn leaving it ripe with predictability and shallow character exploration that, with the exception of Kaimana’s aforementioned Gia, doesn’t take time to get to know anyone on this team beyond the one-sentence designations that each of them are given during the film’s introductory first half. Beyond this, the humor is once again overburdened by Taika, which at times feels tedious and forced into producing a punchline every minute. Like Waititi’s previous film, the much chastisized “Thor: Love and Thunder”, the comedy in this film has ways of robbing scenes of integrity and honesty, in turn making them feel like a series of skits instead of factual inserts from history that play integrally towards the developments of the dynamics between coach and his players. Finally, Waititi indulges even further in his own brand, with some questionable framing devices in his film that stall and even obliterate momentum from some of the film’s biggest scenes. As an introduction, Waititi serves as an on-screen narrator who gets this film off and running as a quirky priest who, outside of one throwaway scene, has no bearing on this film and these characters. As expected, Waititi conjures a strange accent and neurosies to make the character feel like a cartoon, and then the film completely forgets about him, which is strange considering he’s our storyteller. From there, the third act makes some questionable choices in the climax of its big game, which address it from the perspective of the players involved, but from decades down the road. This decision completely eviscerates the momentum and intensity of in-game sequences that Waititi was producing quite well for himself and his film, at this time, but also paves the way for a resolution that practically begs for one of those on-screen text sequences that, ironically enough, tell us more about the players than the entirety of this movie ever did.
“Next Goal Wins” might hit the net with a few solid performances and an underlining layer of heart that feels promised to Waititi narratives, but its overindulgence of poorly-timed humor and strange framing devices keep it from triumphant victory, in turn leaving it defined by the familiarity to other sports biopics that it never attempts alluding.
My Grade: 6/10 or C-