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NY Post
17 Feb 2024

NextImg:Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Next Goal Wins’ on Hulu, Taika Waititi's underdog sports comedy about a struggling soccer team

Where to Stream:

Next Goal Wins (2023)

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Taika Waititi jumps into the deep end of the feelgood-sports pool with Next Goal Wins (now streaming on Hulu), a soccer movie that doesn’t at all jibe with the swimming metaphor in this sentence, but we’ll just have to move on from that. The film adapts the 2014 documentary of the same name, about the American Samoa soccer team, which once famously lost a World Cup qualifier match to Australia by the ungodly score of 31-0; after a decade of mighty futility, the team almost kinda turned it around thanks to coach Thomas Rongen, here played by Michael Fassbender. In Waititi’s hands, the story is a syrupy-sweet BOATS (Based On A True Story) farce that yields a couple of laughs but otherwise is a genial dud. Here’s why.  

The Gist: One goal. That’s the goal: Score one goal. It’s 2011, 10 years after the 31-0 megadebacle, and the American Samoa team hasn’t even put a ball in the net since then. Not a single one. They seem to lack intensity, and guidance, and skill, and just about everything you might need to be competitive on the pitch except maybe heart. And a coach, since American Samoa Soccer Federation head Tavita (Oscar Kightley) has just given Ace (David Fane) the boot and, being a nice, logical sort of fella, he vacates the position agreeably. That’s the thing – everyone around here is so damn agreeable. People in the cozy American Samoa community are happy-go-luckies who don’t possess much in the way of competitive fire, not at all like the tense, stressed-out Westerners who just want to win, baby, win. 

Speaking of. Meet Thomas Rongen (Fassbinder), a Dutch-American coach who drinks too much and could really use an extensive anger management course. He’s the type who starts smashing folding chairs on the sideline when the game goes south. Sitting in front of the international soccer org led by his almost-ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) and her new boyfriend Alex (Will Arnett), Thomas is given a choice: Be fired or take up the helm of the sinking ship in American Samoa. Which is worse? Can’t tell. He arrives on the island with four weeks until a qualifying match against archrivals Tonga. Near the practice field is a mountain, and it’s a metaphor for something that’s really big that could be climbed if everyone works together and trains hard and uses a foot to put a spherical object into a rectangular space. 

But that shit’s impossible. This team – they’re a what? Say it with me, all together now: They’re a ragtag bunch of weirdos! There’s the goalie who let in 31 goals and is now a basket case, the one guy who sucks at slide tackling, a guy who don’t kick the ball very good, another guy who don’t kick it good and another guy who kicks it even worse. And there’s Jaiyah (Kaimana), who’s transitioning from male to female and is about to transition right out of qualifying for a men’s sport, and is the object of cruel judgment by Thomas before he realizes he’s being a big a-hole about it and that Jaiyah would make for a good team captain. Will he whip this team into shape enough to not be blanked, since actually winning a game feels like a task on par with unsinking the Titanic? Eh, probably not. I bet the movie has a really sad ending that’ll just bum everyone out.

Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Weird, how a throwaway junk food sports-underdog comedy like Snoop Dogg joint The Underdoggs yielded more viable comedy than a Waititi film. 

Performance Worth Watching: Nobody is given a character arc worth a damn here, but Kaimana, in her first acting role, does the most with the flimsy material she’s been given. 

Memorable Dialogue: Thomas is extraordinarily terrible at rah-rah speeches: “Our team – we’re like a bunch of tin cans. Look at them. Discarded. Crumpled. Sitting in a bunker, waiting for an apocalypse that may never come. But guess what, Ace? We’re gonna give those cans a purpose. We’ll start a nuclear war.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Photo: Everett Collection

Our Take: Next Goal Wins wrong-foots it from the very first scene, in which Waititi plays a shrill, affected priest who serves as narrator, joking directly to the camera that this is a true story except for the stuff they changed and/or made up. Ugh, I say, ugh. From there, we get a stereotypical portrayal of a small community of laid-back folk – you know, everybody knows everybody else, and everybody works multiple jobs, and Waititi insists this is funny, dammit – and a boilerplate self-hating protagonist in Thomas, played by Fassbender as if his miserable and brooding Harry Hole character from The Snowman was dropped into an easygoing tropical paradise, which is also “funny,” dammit. In fact, a “sad snowman” joke is dropped in the dialogue, along with silly references to The Karate Kid, The Matrix and 9 to 5, as Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris fish around for comedy marlin but only manage to haul in a few emaciated minnows.

As a slightly overbearing director – as opposed to a definitely overbearing actor – Waititi’s commitment to the bit is so ramshackle, he barely shows enthusiasm for even the most basic hooray-for-the-underdog drama of this hacky subgenre. The story’s focus is on Thomas, a sullen prick who disrespects American Samoan culture until he actually tastes a native dish and decides that maybe it ain’t so bad here after all – a cliche that’s as stale as a saltine left over from the Paleozoic. Curiously, Waititi shows little interest in the supporting characters, who barely possess two identifiable traits among them; they possess a collective haplessness in the execution of the basic skills of soccer, and they’re terminally blase about it, which the filmmaker insists is hilarious in it’s quasi-profound, zen-like qualities. So why bother? What’s the players’ motive for keeping on? I guess we’re supposed to conclude that this culture appreciates collectivism more than Westerners, e.g., Thomas, who’s a miserable loner so bent on teaching his team discipline, he leaches the joy of the sport right out of them. 

You sometimes see this dynamic in real life, on failed sports teams whose head coaches attempt to enforce their “systems” on the players instead of recognizing their attributes and putting them in the best position to succeed. As this movie’s “coach,” Waititi squanders a lot of talent – among the big names, Fassbender is miscast and Moss has near-zero to do – and never finds a winning strategy, even within a tried-and-true formula. For a filmmaker capable of an endearingly skewed approach to farce, this feels like gross underachievement. I laughed out loud once, and felt little else as Next Goal Wins whiffed on kick after kick after kick. Waititi seems content to lose this game 31-1 instead of 31-0, and call it a success. 

Our Call: Next Goal Wins misses the net way too many times. SKIP IT. 

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.