HENDERSON, Ky. (WEHT) – Taika Waititi’s (Thor: Ragnarök, Jojo Rabbit) new film is Next Goal Wins, an affable, paint-by-numbers comedy/drama about the American Samoan soccer team, which had never won a game and was on the losing end of a 31-0 disaster the last time they entered international competition. Michael Fassbender plays Thomas Rongen, a fiery coach exiled to American Samoa after a string of professional and personal failures. Fassbender joins a delightful cast of Samoan performers that include Oscar Kightley, David Fane, and Kaimana. Rather than setting the goal of winning the FIFA World Cup, Rongen and a team of misfit soccer players would be satisfied with scoring just one goal.
Next Goal Wins’ best quality is its delightful tone. Like Waititi’s Marvel work, even the heaviest of subjects is treated with a light-hearted insouciance that gives the film a comfortably even tone. Fassbender, an actor known for his intensity, doesn’t always fit in with Waititi’s style, but sometimes the contrast between Fassbender’s steely stare and the American Samoans’ laissez-faire attitude work to the film’s benefit.
The story follows all the sports cliches. It would be in spoiler territory to discuss who wins and loses the big games, but suffice it to say that Next Goal Wins paves no new ground in the genre of “scrappy sports team faces insurmountable odds.” If anything, Waititi leans into the sports cliches too much, attempting to wring humor out of the film’s own self-awareness; it is as though Waititi is playing all the sports movie hits while winking at the audience and saying, “You know how much you like the hits, right? Right?”
Part of the cliché is the redemption arc, and everybody gets a redemption arc. However, I suspect some audiences will think that Rongen doesn’t deserve to be redeemed. In his early interaction with a trans character, Rongen essentially checks off every item in a list of how not to interact with trans people, so when the redemption arc comes around, I found Rongen’s mea culpa unsatisfying.
Next Goal Wins is not a bad movie. It is competently made, delightfully acted, and works in the limited ways that it is intending. The problem is that so many sports movies have already trod this ground to the point that Next Goal Wins might as well be titled The Miracle of Cool Mighty Ducks Runnings But with Soccer. There’s not a lot wrong with that, but there’s little to recommend.