|A Dutch-American FIFA coach is forced to move to American Samoa and train the worst team in the world.
|1 hour, 44 minutes
|November 17, 2023
|Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
|Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Taika Waititi, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss
The rise of Taika Waititi has been one of the most interesting developments of the past decade. His low-budget comedy What We Do In The Shadows—largely emerging from the creative team of HBO’s defunct comedy series Flight of the Conchords—was a tiny cult hit of a film that rapidly escalated into prominence, resulting in the director being handed the keys to direct Disney projects like Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder, with a Star Wars film on the way. He became one of the most popular and exciting directors in Hollywood—but his recent films have shown that his triumphant rise may not last forever.
Violence/Scary Images: Minimal violence, some PG-13 level content, and physical competition and exertion.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe and crude language throughout the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink heavily throughout the film.
Sexual Content: One of the main characters is a transgender woman, and the plot discusses the issue of transphobia. No sexual content is depicted.
Spiritual Content: The majority of the characters are either explicitly Catholic or atheist, although the content of their faith is rarely discussed.
Other Negative Content: Some questionable or potentially controversial content regarding religion and sexuality.
Positive Content: Themes of connecting to others, building relationships, and building others up.
It has been fascinating watching the general public massively turn against Taika Waititi in the past four years. Despite a legendary four-film run of What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit, and the season finale of The Mandalorian Season 1, audiences have seemingly turned on the director and now appear to find him irritating.
He’s gone from being on top of the world—with massive opportunities for adaptations of Star Wars and Akira being handed to him on a silver platter—to a director that draws negativity on social media. Maybe it’s general overplay, his alleged threesome scandal, his comments trolling Star Wars fans, or the negative reception of Thor: Love And Thunder, but people are generally less enthusiastic about him.
His newest film, Next Goal Wins, is unfortunately dropping at a poor time to help his criticized career. Despite his recent comments basically proclaiming himself bigger than Jesus, he’s in a poor position to be dropping a box office dud in theaters to minimal reception.
It really doesn’t help too that the film is his weakest film in a decade. Despite a lot working for him—a killer premise, the backing of Disney, Michael Fassbender as the lead actor, and an extensive pop-rock soundtrack—the final result is surprisingly dull. It’s not explicitly bad, but it is by far his most uneven and preachy film to date.
The film follows the story of the worst competitive soccer/football team in the world—American Samoa. In 2001, they suffered one of the worst losses in history and didn’t score a single goal for the following decade. When a disgraced American coach is fired and assigned to them, he starts learning their culture and finding a way to improve their game.
In a lot of ways, the film is more interesting as a cultural barometer than it is as a sports comedy—of which it is a rather poor one. The film seems to be trying to circumvent the concept of the white savior complex by immediately making it clear that Fassbender’s character has very little to teach them. He comes to the island with American ideas of discipline and strategy, but the free-wheeling and happy people are uniquely unreceptive to it, continually joking that he’s just a white boy lost in the mall who needs to relax. The entire arc of the film is about teaching Fassbender to live in the moment, accept himself and others for who they are, and learn to be happy despite tragedy.
This creates some fascinating tensions and contradictions. Almost everyone on the island is intensely Catholic and religious, to the point where they all take liturgical prayer breaks every single day in unison—creeping the atheist Fassbender out and frustrating him with their traditions. At the same time, the islanders brag about being more accepting and laid-back about sexuality. The most prominent member of the team is a transgender character based on real-life FIFA ambassador Jaiyah Saelua, who later became the first transgender player in the league.
This strange combination is largely embodied by Taika Waititi’s repeated cameo throughout the film as a Catholic priest attending to the island, who seems to be the moral center of the island’s moral vision and talks with the casual acceptance of a hippie while wearing hand-drawn stoles.
The story’s theme of self-acceptance, epicurean disregard for the future, and progressive portrayal of sexual minorities make the film something that might otherwise become a major topic of discussion or controversy, but that really hasn’t happened. Unfortunately, most of these elements just don’t gel together very much and the result is a film that isn’t very funny or interesting. Michael Fassbender feels uniquely out of place and stoic in this world, with his more formal acting style clashing with the easygoing tone.
The movie does somewhat come together in the final act, delivering a great classic suspenseful resolution—especially to audience members unfamiliar with the original story. Unfortunately, at this point, the film has been meandering too long. The sweetness of the final moments can’t make up for the awkwardness of the prior hour and a half of screen time.
Maybe the film’s strangeness is just a fluke, a combination of elements that aren’t well suited to being mixed not working together, while being reinterpreted through Waititi’s improvisational approach to filmmaking. Even so, this isn’t the first time that Waititi has worked in a low-stakes or low-concept environment. What We Do In The Shadows was a far less expensive comedy with many of the same jokes as this film, and yet it feels entirely more cohesive and human than Next Goal Wins.
+ Some decent performances
+ Engaging final act
- Weak comedy and writing
- Potentially controversial subject matter
The Bottom Line
Taika Waititi remains one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood, but his recent work with Thor: Love and Thunder and Next Goal Wins show he isn't perfect and struggling to stay at the forefront of the cultural discussion.