Next Goal Wins Review: Taika Waititi's Family-Friendly Sports Comedy Is Fun But Too Traditional

 Michael Fassbender and American Samoa soccer team in Next Goal Wins.
Michael Fassbender and American Samoa soccer team in Next Goal Wins.

As an elder millennial who grew up playing and watching baseball, basketball, football, soccer and more, I have strong feelings of nostalgia tied to the family-friendly sports movies of the 1980s and 1990s. The Mighty Ducks. The Sandlot. The Big Green. Little Giants. Ladybugs. Little Big League. Rookie Of The Year. Cool Runnings. Angels In The Outfield. These were all movies that frequently came home from the video store in my household and were watched over and over again.

Next Goal Wins

Michael Fassbender in Next Goal Wins
Michael Fassbender in Next Goal Wins

Release Date: November 17, 2023
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Written By: Taika Waititi & Iain Morris
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, and Beulah Koale
Rating: PG-13 for some strong language and crude material
Runtime: 103 minutes

It was with these movies in mind that I set my expectations for Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins. I prepared myself to watch a classic underdog story filled with colorful characters and more heart than creativity. Living up to expectations, that is ultimately what the movie delivers… but that’s pretty much all it has, and it’s a disappointing result given Waititi’s excellent track record.

The movie is charming, warm, funny and has verisimilitude granted from being inspired by a true story, but it also feels slight and has the wonderful flavor that Waititi typically brings to his work watered down by tropes and lacking depth. It brings together all of the traditional pieces of a classic family-friendly sports movie, but it doesn’t end up doing more than the expected with them.

With his eighth feature as a director, Taika Waititi tells the story of the American Samoa national football team, which spent years as a punchline in the sport after a disastrous 2001 World Cup qualifying match against Australia that saw them defeated by a score of 31-0. They never managed to score a goal in international play, but a decade after their most notorious game, Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) arrived to lead the squad.

As depicted in the movie, it’s not a job that Thomas wants – he is given the choice to either coach the team or no longer be a part of the sport – and he accepts the position begrudgingly. On top of being a fish out of water in the island community, he is regularly driven to rage-fueled temper tantrums when he is outraged by his players’ lacking skills, and it leads him to drink heavily. Still, however, he gets the unending support of the ever-positive team president Tavita (Oscar Kightley), and over the course of four weeks, everyone works together and trains towards achieving a shared objective: scoring just a single goal the forthcoming World Cup qualifying matches.

Next Goal Wins puts too much focus on Michael Fassbender's Thomas Rongen

Playing with heaps of irascibility and shades of Emilio Estevez’s Gordon Bombay and Walter Matthau’s Morris Buttermaker, Thomas Rongen is far and away the most well-defined character in Next Goal Wins… and that’s meant to register as a mixed complement. He has a litany of issues – including, but not limited to, anger management problems and lingering feelings for his ex-wife (Elisabeth Moss) – he has clear personal motivation and ambition, and connecting those two things ultimately delivers a full arc (albeit one with some awkward pacing built in). Michael Fassbender doesn’t get the biggest laughs in the film, but he has a collection of funny lines and reactions and plays the hell out of Thomas’ moments of blinding rage.

The problem with Thomas’ prominence is that the rest of the ensemble cast gets shortchanged, specifically the American-Samoan characters. Tavita is an exception – as the movie provides us with some insight into his family life, and there is a solid running joke regarding him having multiple occupations – and the same is true for Kaimana's Jaiyah Saelua, who is given a special spotlight in the story as the first transgender player to compete in a World Cup game. Unfortunately, everyone else is basically a background player.

Trite, but effective, sports movies typically provide supporting characters with a single standout trait that makes them unique in the cast and sets up some kind of signature moment, but audiences won’t find any of that tradition in Next Goal Wins, and it’s missed. It’s a strange thing, because while there are setups for that kind of material – like the former coach, Ace (David Fane), identifying members of the team for Thomas and a recruitment montage – the follow-through is weak. The movie uncovers the most potential with Uli Latukefu's Nicky Salapu, the team goalie who retired after the 31-0 loss, but it’s a part of the story that’s not anywhere near as substantial as it could be.

Intermittently funny, Next Goal Wins lets tropes overshadow Taika Waititi's unique filmmaking voice.

In addition to wanting more from the players, the underdeveloped players also have another side effect that ends up undercutting the humor. There is a certain meta sensibility that Taika Waititi instills in the film (beginning with a fourth wall-breaking monologue he personally delivers acknowledging embellishments to the true story), and that includes lampshading familiar elements of white saviorism. There are funny scenes where Tavita and his wife (Rachel House) actively manipulate Thomas into thinking that he is the team’s white savior, but that touch ends up being far too light.

That’s the kind of irreverent humor we’ve come to expect from Taika Waititi’s filmmaking voice, and there’s just not enough of it in general in Next Goal Wins. There are flashes of it that surprise – like a bit of shocking violence during the aforementioned recruitment montage and Thomas quickly cycling through the five stages of grief when given the word that he’s being shipped off to American Samoa – but there’s only enough to be frustrating. The drama is solid, and it’s worth noting that Waititi’s best films (Boy, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Jojo Rabbit) brilliantly balance tones, but this one isn’t up to the set standard.

If I were to revisit all of the movies I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I’m sure I would discover a mixed bag in terms of quality – with nostalgia doing quite a lot of heavy lifting for certain titles paving over blatant flaws. An enjoyable-though-too traditional diversion, Next Goal Wins is a feature that slots in well into that mix, even with the letdowns that come with expecting more from its writer/director.