The outlandish efforts of writer/director Taika Waititi (Thor: Love and Thunder) have seen its share of strides and missteps. In the last seven years of his career, one of his films could reach a grand hill while another sank into a middling valley. With him, there’s never exactly a plateau, which if he wants to rebuild his footing into the quieter stories inundating his grittier indie era, couldn’t be more of a necessity. For all its bumps to reach the screen – pandemic related delays, specifically, Next Goal Wins – adapted from a superior 2014 documentary – is either a logical first step forward, or proof that far more work is needed. More of his signature offbeat silliness comes to play in this return to quasi-indie territory. When stacked against what would otherwise be a serious, often vindicating, frequently self-parodying sports drama, one that still pays mostly fair homage to the figures in play, and the community they play for, the priorities all come off begrudgingly muddled.
Waititi’s efforts, shared on script duties with mutual friend Iain Morris (Flight of the Conchords), aren’t completely in vain. Or at least, they do not start out that way. More painful, if nothing else, as the tiny U.S. territory of American Samoa could never let go of the embarrassing loss to Australia, a 31-0 scoring affair in their 2001 World Cup qualifier game. National pride turned into a decade of mediocrity and shame. At that point, the country’s football (aka soccer) federation, led by manager Tavita (Oscar Kightley) has had enough, and wants a change. Taking advantage of a drastic upheaval, he successfully lures recently fired national team coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) to overhaul the scrappy, misguided players back into a squad that can keep their heads together long enough to score, at minimum, one goal or more.
Like almost any athlete-influenced underdog story, both in real life and then put on film, that is easier said than done. And knowing Waititi’s quirks, that takes higher meaning. Those same loose and unruly players may be the icons propelling this venture along. And in the case of Fassbender, leaning further into the sillier aspects of his actor’s disposition, he’s a genuine captain in every sense, often outshining the director in his path. Whether it be coordinating the action or accentuating its humorous demeanor as the island’s beloved priest – a shamelessly cheeky cameo.
Here we find Waititi again closer to his roots, with a much smaller, intimate, character-intensive story than in recent memory, anchored by a primarily indigenous cast. And the priority with his stars might be to stay true to this motif while making light fun of that clear-cut inspiration derived from The Karate Kid, Whiplash, Any Given Sunday, Cool Runnings, or any episode of Ted Lasso with a rating above 8.0 on IMDB. The examples could list themselves for hours. At times, he really nails the theme, doing so with a self-aware flair. But it never stays that way for long, not even long enough to effectively maintain a captive idea of tone or symbolism. Often, we see the equivalent of a coin flip to determine which path to capture a particular scene upon filming, versus the ideal tact of recognizing a beat during the script phase. Next Goal is painfully uneven when it has no reason to be, stunting its chances of scoring at its most opportune, optimistic, or even empathic moments.
Morris and Waititi overlook nothing from a factual sense; the rigors, roughness and camaraderie between these players is prominent in display. The likes of defender Daru (Beulah Koale), conflicted striker Jonah (Chris Alosio), tank-like power forward Rambo (Semu Filipo), assisting manager Ace (David Fane), Tavita’s wife Ruth (a frustratingly underused Rachel House), and impassioned goalie Nicky Salupu (Uli Latukefu) – seeking vindication for his role in the prior loss, all provide admirable shots at personality and panache, with varying results. They’re somehow the only glue keeping half-baked ideas at character development from sinking in the grass. Results are further mixed, initially between both Thomas and his misfire of a life, dealing with the consequences of his short temper, frayed ties as a workaholic dad, and jealousy toward his ex Gail (a rocksteady Elizabeth Moss) linking up with his American Soccer Federation supervisor Alex (a modestly neutral Will Arnett).
We see enough of this disconnect to humbly soften Thomas’s grouchy resolve, but it doesn’t move the needle in the same fashion as his overall rapport with the team. Even that devolves into a fruitless battle on the pitch, with part of the tale’s focus shifted around his star player, Jaiyah Saelua (newcomer Kaimana in an endearing performance), notably for the wrong reasons. Overt emphasis is placed on her third gender status, a notable Samoan designation known as a Fa’afafine. She identifies as female but is obligated to present as male to stay on the team, weary the clock is quickly ticking on her eligibility. The tender conflict around her transition would’ve been handled more gracefully to build her strengths as a player, were it not for that same rampant misgendering being a point of contrition. Thomas is most guilty in his ways, inciting an invisible, insensitive line in the center while confronting the guidelines and flexing his authority underneath. That too softens up, though it’s to a shallow degree benefiting his character a bit too late.
All Waititi’s best thematic ideas arrive too close to the end to save his eighth film as director from nose diving into dirt. By that point, it’s fallen on its sword, despairing to negate the typical formulaic sports movie finale cliche. Certain technical flourishes do aid his guidance in small ways, namely Michael Giacchino’s (Lightyear) energetic score and Lachlan Milne’s (Minari) sharp, enveloping cinematography. But it cannot reverse an overly familiar, often ignorant, occasionally engaging piece of cozy filmaking. Next Goal Wins is only as effective as it is, because it’s a necessary step backwards for the director – and a half step forward for Fassbender in the name of lighter fare, but not always for good. It’s a return to familiar stripes, away from his Hollywood high ambition, struggling not to make similar mistakes. He might be doing his best to distance himself from that embarrassing Marvel pitfall and stand out amid other soccer films that have achieved better results. He’s stuck kicking a dead ball into something worthwhile. It’s not immediate, nor clean, but the job is fulfilled. (C+; 3/5)
Next Goal Wins opens in theaters November 17, previews begin 6PM November 16; rated PG-13 for some strong language and crude material; 103 minutes.