Taika Waititi just premiered Next Goal Wins at TIFF 2023 and the audience was roaring. Often film festivals are known for heartbreaking films, but Next Goal Wins brings an underdog story to TIFF and from beginning to end viewers were laughing out loud. Being known for films that are a little more out there like Jojo Rabbit and Thor films, Taika Waititi wanted to bring this true story to the big screen in a positive way, even if there is no major success story.
Next Goal Wins is a true story (go watch the documentary!) about the soccer (football) team American Samoa. The team held the worst score in soccer history, with a 31-0 loss. Michael Fassbender plays Thomas Rongen, a coach that was forced to take the team under his wing after a history of bad behaviour on and off the field has him fired. Rongen had some ups and downs with the team, and they were absolutely not a wild success story like most sports movies we see.
What is different about Next Goal Wins compared to a standard sports film is Waititi’s mission to bring us a fun, positive message about a team that rallies, even if there isn’t an MLS championship at the end. He absolutely accomplished this, and though the film is lighthearted at its core, it highlights important messages about acceptance, persistence, and teamwork.Taika Waititi mixes these themes with a script and direction that had me howling from beginning to end.
I’ve said it before, I am an absolute sucker for sports films, even if I know absolutely nothing about sports in general. They have everything you can want from a film, usually ending in a dramatic finale that has everyone cheering and usually at least one tear. During Next Goal Wins, not only did it bring me to tears of laughter and joy, but it had the entire Princess of Wales Theatre cheering as our underdogs took on their final challenge. Did they all move on to play at the professional level? Absolutely not. But they were happy, and that is all that we wanted for them and more importantly all they wanted for themselves.
“In the hands of Taika Waititi and a dynamic cast, Next Goal Wins is one of the best comedies of the year, delivering non-stop laughter with a story that matters.”
After of the screening Waititi spoke to the audience and discussed some of his direction choices. When speaking about Jaiyah (Kaimana), the first out transgender player in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier, he wanted to stress that he didn’t feel the need to explain the story to the audience. The term fa’afafine is used throughout the film and though briefly explained, Waititi said that in their culture, it isn’t a discussion that anyone needs to have, so he didn’t plan to pander to audiences with a dramatic reveal, mentioning people can look it up if they don’t understand.
I am loving this very long overdue ability to involve different cultures, genders, sexuality and more naturally without having to make it a plot point. We saw it in Close to You at TIFF and I’m seeing it again here. The film obviously touches on Jaiyah, but mainly focuses on what a badass player and leader she is. That is the real focus.
The relationship between Jaiyah and Thomas is a huge focal point for the film. It was important to the real Jaiyah that she was portrayed by a fa’afafine Samoan actor and though it is their debut, Kaimana knocks it out of the park. The way they manage to bond with Fassbender and be both his comfort and his strength was beautiful to watch. You see Jaiyah drop layers of this tough exterior piece by piece until it is no longer a defense mechanism, but true power and confidence.
As for Fassbender, I’ve never seen him in a role quite like this. A man that is normally so sexy, serious, intimidating and smooth has been reduced to a closed-minded, awkward man with a temper, and he does it flawlessly. There were moments he would make an awkward smile showing teeth in a way that was more unsettling. Of course, behind all that anger there is a story.
“Kightley lands every joke perfectly and is one of the standouts in Next Goal Wins.”
Though the majority of Next Goal Wins is quite literally fun and games, there is a moment where Fassbender displays true vulnerability. Through welling tears and the slightest shake in his hands he immediately had viewers (and his team) on his side. Yes, he can do action. Yes, he can even do comedy. But this moment in the film is where I realized he can do it all.
The comedic timing of the entire cast was outstanding. There were moments that could have felt like they went on for too long but hit just right. Oscar Kightley plays Tavita, the man in charge of the Football Federation in American Samoa, and the local restaurant owner, and the camera man for Who’s on the Plane. Kightley lands every joke perfectly and is one of the standouts in Next Goal Wins. More importantly though, through the writing, direction and pure charisma, he also becomes the moral compass for the film. His balance of humour and sincerity is vital to the success of this Next Goal Wins.
This is perhaps one of the most inclusive comedies I’ve seen and it does so without making a sermon out of it. This is a true story about good people and it doesn’t talk down to its audience or cater to them in any way. In the hands of Taika Waititi and a dynamic cast, Next Goal Wins is one of the best comedies of the year, delivering non-stop laughter with a story that matters.