Next Goal Wins originates from a 2014 documentary of the same name directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. The 2023 film, directed by Taika Waititi and written by Waititi and Iain Morris, follows a Dutch-American football coach named Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender). Rongen’s anger and reckless behavior give him the option of getting fired or attempting to coach the American Samoa national team.
Ranked last and known for losing a 2001 FIFA match where the final score was 31-0, the American Samoa team has shattered its reputation of being competent or respectable in the eyes of their peers. But if Rongen can overcome his demons and score just one goal, they may at least function as a team again.
Taika Waititi has floated by on directorial laziness since Thor: Ragnarok. This approach mostly worked in his favor for a while, but it finally blew up in his face when he took over writing responsibilities on Thor: Love and Thunder, and the film indulged in silliness for the sake of being preposterous.
Wacky Waititi Humor Rooted in Realism
With Next Goal Wins, it seems Waititi watched the 2014 documentary or at least glanced at it from time to time. Waititi’s dry silliness bleeds throughout the film, but the film commits to an actual story. Unforutnately, apart from Jaiyah (Kaimana) and maybe Tavita (Oscar Kightley), since he shares so much one-on-one screen time with Michael Fassbender, the rest of the team feels like interchangeable cannon fodder. They have little to no character development outside paper-thin characteristics of quirky mannerisms, dry line delivery, and a few lines of dialogue.
American Samoa teammate Jaiyah Saelua became the first transgender player to compete in a World Cup game. Excellently portrayed by Kaimana, Jaiyah intrigues as often as she provokes emotion. Her transition nears completion as Jaiyah will soon be fully identified as a woman and dreams of permanently leaving the island. Her conflict with Coach Rongen that leads to their close relationship and how Jaiyah becomes a natural leader amongst her peers makes her one of the most riveting aspects of Next Goal Wins.
Apart from maybe Frank in 2014, Michael Fassbender has avoided the comedy genre. The Irish actor has limitless potential in acting ability, so the fact that comedy has been something Fassbender has hand selected his entire career is fascinating.
Michael Fassbender Has a Conflicted Charm
So why would Michael Fassbender choose a Taika Waititi film? As Thomas Rongen, Fassbender has lost everything as a former soccer player. He’s separated from his wife and only has alcohol to keep him company these days. He has an uncontrollable temper and feels superior to everyone on the American Samoan football team.
Fassbender yells, lashes out, gets in fights, and throws countless things throughout Next Goal Wins. Even when he starts to bond with the team, he loses his cool because the team refuses to listen to him. But an emotional speech at the end of the film brings everything together. Fassbender can portray a ton of emotion; his words inspire the team, and what he says gives meaning to his character and behavior. That scene brought Fassbender on board, which sells this 90-minute excursion for an alcoholic has-been who used to have everything.
Much as Guardians of the Galaxy lives up to being a team of losers because of how they have spent their lives losing everything, Next Goal Wins sees a vagrant coach advising a team of outcasts. The people of American Samoa don’t operate the same way as an average person. How they feel and what they believe in factor into how they play. It takes the entire film for Coach Rongen to realize that the team isn’t the one that needs him, but he’s the one that requires them to heal and progress to the next stage in his life.
How To Embrace a No-Win Situation
Next Goal Wins thrives on being an hour and a half of Taika Waititi’s trademark goofy nonsense, but the director tethers it to reality. Since the film planks itself in something that occurred, the factual events of the 2014 documentary laid the foundation to keep Waititi’s film somewhat grounded whenever it tried to drift too far off into unrestrained absurdity.
A story with all the proper beats lives here, even if the film rambles and tampers off into ridiculousness when it has no reason to. But even with its flaws and redundant humor fatigue, Next Goal Wins stands out as Taika Waititi’s most coherent film since Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Rating: 5/10 SPECS
Next Goal Wins opens nationwide November 17. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.
Chris has been writing reviews since 2008. He started writing on horror message boards but migrated to Examiner.com in 2009. Chris wrote over 1,000 articles during his seven-year stint there and was a top contributor both locally and nationally. He would successfully join the Houston Film Critics Society because of his work with Examiner.com and become a certified Tomatometer critic on Rotten Tomatoes. It was his home for content until the site closed down in 2016.
Chris would experiment with new homes for his reviews from 2016 -2018. He wrote for WhatCulture briefly in 2018 and experimented with comic book and video game reviews in addition to movies with his five-ish year stint at GeeksHaveGame. HubPages (and its featured movie channel ReelRundown) would be his primary home for reviews until Bounding Into Comics in 2019.
Chris also briefly wrote for ScreenRant in 2020 and Slickster Magazine (2017-2020) and co-hosted a movie podcast called Arthouse Legends from 2017-2018.
In addition to reviews, Chris dabbles in creative fiction from time to time. He also has an associate degree in graphic design.