Film Review: Next Goal Wins; Inspiring underdog tale returns Taika Waititi to his humble roots as a filmmaker

If you browse long enough on Twitter, sorry, X, you’ll note that there’s still chatter and self-diagnosed “hot takes” regarding Taika Waititi‘s 2019 outing Jojo Rabbit.  The film already had its share of detractors in the immediate aftermath of its release, but an Oscar win for Best Screenplay and the general good word for its being means it’s still a well regarded slice of cinema.

Though criticisms towards the film are valid, it would appear it’s Waititi’s own polarising personality that truly drives the discourse, with the actor/writer/director having fallen out of favour with the general masses following the underwhelming reception to Thor: Love and Thunder; the 2022 Marvel sequel that was wildly at odds with audience favour in comparison to 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, which seemed to (rather interestingly) put Waititi in the public’s good books.

Whatever the case regarding your personal opinion of Waititi, such a notion shouldn’t have any weight when it comes to Next Goal Wins, a return to lower budget storytelling for the filmmaker who injects enough heart and general appeal throughout the narrative to remind us that he hasn’t gone full “Hollywood” on us.  And really, if he hadn’t plopped himself in the film for an amusing cameo, one might not even suspect anything on hand to truly distinguish Next Goal Wins as a Waititi production.

The kind of magic that he peppered throughout his earlier works, such as Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and, yes, even Jojo Rabbit and his Thor sequels, is missing here though, but there’s still a sense of fun and eccentricity to get it across the board with undemanding audiences, thanks to the inspiring underdog tale at its core.

The story here relates to the American Samoa national football team, considered one of the weakest teams in the entirety of the world, and their optimistic bid to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  Because Waititi’s film is based on a true story – a documentary of the same name was released in 2014 documenting the team’s struggles – there’s the sense that there’ll be a happy-enough ending to justify the team’s initial setbacks, and due to Waititi’s sense of humour, the oddball team and their various quirks understandably are enhanced for comedic effect.

Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with such a decision, as Oscar Kightley provides humorous work as Tavita, the team’s head-of, who, in a constant uphill battle, does his best to get their new coach to adjust to the team’s continual fumbles; Uli Latukefu, Beulah Koale, Ioane Goodhue, Chris Alosio and Kaimana just some of the stand-outs of the team.  Kaimana’s turn as Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender player to ever compete in a World Cup qualifiying game, is one of Next Goal Wins‘ true bright spots, and a story that delved into her struggles and psyche could have not only benefitted this film’s trajectory, but proves worthy of its own focus.

Waititi’s focus, however, is primarily on Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender, slightly miscast, but persevering regardless), a Dutch American football coach who is given the unenviable task of shaping up the American Samoa team, lest he be fired, following his anger issues and off-field antics; Elisabeth Moss and Will Arnett earning supporting spots as the FIFA officials who hand Rongen such an ultimatum.  He isn’t quite sure of such a decision, but after travelling through the five stages of grief – this sequence proving one of the film’s funniest – he packs his bags for American Samoa, where he (eventually) reframes his thinking of both the game and his own life.

Across the film’s breezy 103 minutes, Waitit’s script – written in collaboration with Iain Morris, creator of The Inbetweeners – hits all the bases you’d expect, and ultimately culminates in an inspiring set-piece that drives home the importance of teamwork and understanding, but all in the most surface level of manners.  Next Goal Wins ultimately lacks any of Waititi’s own flourishes, but, at the end of the day, even a second-gear shifting effort from the man is worth a watch for the sheer fact that he knows how to entertain; even if we know there could have been so much more.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Next Goal Wins is screening in Australian theatres from New Years Day, January 1st, 2024.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.