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Next Goal Wins (Film Review)

3 min read
Michael Fassbender in NExt Goal Wins

Having driven down the rainbow road of Marvel Studios and attaching himself to several blockbuster properties from Star Wars to Akira and Flash Gordon -not to mention the number of acting credits and TV shows he's also got in his stable –  it is easy to forget Taika Waitit's more grounded humble cinematic roots. With the likes of the sweet Eagle Vs Shark and the sleeper successes of What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Widlerpeople, Taika established himself as a filmmaker with a delightfully silly sense of humour mixed in with a warmth and genuine heart. 

Wartime comedy Jojo Rabbit brought him the awards success and Thor the box office, but the notion of him returning to something more in this original down-to-earth blend is welcome. With  , the concept is a winning one. Based on the true story of the American Samoa team struggling at the bottom of the FIFA rankings following suffering the biggest defeat in international football history. Next Goal Wins has all the ingredients to create a winning sports movie formula, complete with a grumpy coach brought in who will – one suspects – ultimately be charmed by his new team and unfamiliar surroundings. 

Sadly, however, Next Goal Wins falls short of putting together a winning experience. There are flashes of that Waititi charm and wit, particularly amongst the endearing team members that 's Thomas Rongen coaches. But often it feels like something trying to imitate a Waitit joint, desperate to find silly gags at the expense of tonal consistency and often at the expense of establishing a more human connection with the characters on screen. 

The first sense that this isn't going to hit the back of the net comes from a misjudged appearance from Waitit himself in the opening. His exaggerated makeup and fourth-wall-breaking kicks things off in a fashion which is cringe-worthy and smug, but thankfully the idea of him as narrator is dropped as quickly as it's introduced. 

However, that kind of clumsy and awkward approach ends up categorising a lot of the film, particularly when it comes to humour and character. It's oddly low energy, with many comedic beats feeling like an impression of the Waitit brand rather than something from the man himself. The characters as well often get lost as the film jerks from sentimentality to silly gags, which is a shame as there are a lot of charming performances among the teammates. 

Fassbender fairs better at the more dramatic moments than he does the comedy, but the way Thomas has been written here often makes him a difficult character to root for. The film focuses on his relationship with trans woman teammate Jaiyah (played well by ). From the off Thomas targets them, and in one spiky encounter deadnames them repeatedly to get a rise. It is all the name of creating an arc for Thomas to show the way he changes, with the film rarely giving the spotlight to Jaiyah's journey beyond the way it helps develop Thomas' arc. It doesn't feel particularly a malicious decision from the filmmakers, more a misjudged one, and a somewhat puzzling one when you consider that the real Thomas Rongen reportedly never showed prejudice towards Jaiyah. It's a conflict for conflict's sake – an embellishment which ends up being more of a disservice to the characters and their real-life counterparts than (you hope) is intended. 

The film is more successful when it sticks to playing the sports movie formula with the gorgeous landscapes of America Samoa as its backdrop. Who doesn't love a well-placed montage? When we get to the game itself, Waitit has fun with both the expectations of the genre and with playing with perspective and recollection. It is in these moments, where after all the training montages and seeds planted payoff in the kind of crowd-pleasing ways that even the most uninspired sports movies can easily tap into. 

Next Goal Wins is far from Waitit's best; the laughs often go for the easy – occasionally lazy – option, while its more dramatic beats feel clumsy and misguided. It has its moments where the formula soars to crowd-pleasing heights, with the charm of the true life story going a long way to lift the spirits when other components struggle to click and connect. However, there is no shaking the sense of missed opportunity; a wonderful story delivered in a miscalculated fashion.

Next Goal Win is released in UK cinemas on Boxing Day