After years of delays related to COVID and reshoots due to controversy involving its former star Armie Hammer, Taika Waititi’s soccer dramedy Next Goal Wins is finally getting released. Unfortunately, it may not have been worth the wait, as it is held back by its overly conventional and safe nature.
Next Goal Wins tells the story of the American Samoan soccer team who, under the guidance of a foreign coach, went from having the worst loss in the history of competitive soccer to mounting an unexpected comeback. The film is based on the documentary of the same name, but features plenty of flourishes with Waititi’s signature style; however, this is not enough to elevate the movie beyond its sports movie tropes.
The film is so conventional in its storytelling that viewers will hardly be surprised by any of its events. What keeps viewers engaged is instead its humor and its charm. However, even the humor feels derivative. The gags are either obvious or attempt and fail to lean on the tropes in a meta-like way. For example, one scene attempts to riff on Any Given Sunday and flops.
That being said, as is the case with virtually any underdog story, it’s hard not to root for the team, and Waititi and the rest of the film’s crew clearly have such a deep admiration for their tale that it’s infectious. Michael Fassbender’s character is less compelling, with motivations that feel mostly underdeveloped.
Next Goal Wins is a conventional, crowd-pleasing underdog story
One important aspect of the story is one of the members of the team being an out trans woman. While this is welcome representation, the approach they take is occasionally problematic. For example, one sequence in which Fassbender’s character repeatedly deadnames the trans character is used as a teaching moment, but feels somewhat mean-spirited.
Michael Fassbender’s performance in the leading role is disappointing. It feels like he’s doing the same type of schtick that any actor does when they play the coach in a sports movie. The comedic delivery he brings to the role isn’t even particularly special.
Surprisingly, the highlight of Next Goal Wins is the rest of the cast. Kaimana has the biggest role of any of the players on the team, and she gets a lot of emotion out of the role despite it being somewhat underwhelming in its writing. Oscar Kightley gets some of the most laughs in the movie — as well as some of the most charming moments — playing the president of the FFAS. On the other hand, Elisabeth Moss and Will Arnett are completely wasted in their roles.
However, perhaps the biggest issue with the film is that Waititi does not shoot the soccer match scenes effectively. The shooting style and editing lack the energetic nature they would have needed to keep the movie engaging. Although the climactic sequence is good enough to get the audience cheering, it’s not a particularly kinetic way of showing the sport.
Next Goal Wins is enjoyable enough for what it is, but considering the talent involved, it absolutely should have been more. If you look at it as a comedy, it’s hit or miss. But if you look at it as a conventional sports film, it’s sufficient.
Next Goal Wins is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.