In recent years, Taika Waititi’s filmography has oscillated between blockbuster commercial exploits within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and projects reminiscent of his early career — such as Academy Award winning “Jojo Rabbit.” Waititi’s involvement with lucrative franchise Thor has garnered him widespread recognition in Hollywood, but has surely contributed to his fall from indie film grace. While the resurgence of his indie film roots is apparent in his latest feature “Next Goal Wins,” longtime Waititi fans who pine for the audacity and experimental verve emblematic of his earlier indie oeuvre will no doubt be left slightly disappointed. That being said, though the film fails to deviate completely from the allure of crowd-pleasing tendencies on a creative front, it still offers a refreshing return to Waititi’s signature wit in the form of a sports dramedy.
The biographical film, adapted from the 2014 documentary of the same title, centers itself around the American Samoa national football team, which faced an infamous defeat at the Oceanian qualifying match for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, losing 31 – 0. Nearly a decade later, the team finds itself at the bottom of the FIFA world ranking. Struggling to revive a team shattered in both skill and spirit, coach Tavita’s (Oscar Kightley) last hope rests on the shoulders of Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a temperamental coach who reluctantly takes on the task of rebuilding the team to avoid unemployment.
Under Rongen’s intense training regimen and relentless discipline, the players embark on a journey that not only refines their ability on the field but more importantly challenges their aptitude to harmonize and work together as a team. An exploration of identity, companionship and self-reformation, even Coach Rongen becomes a student of the invaluable lesson of affording second chances, recognizing the transformative power of providing opportunities for growth and redemption.
While seasoned actor Michael Fassbender stands out in a performance filled with chair throws and madcap outbursts, the film’s true star is non-binary Samoan actor Kaimana. Kaimana’s portrayal of Jaiyah Saelua — the first transgender player to ever compete in a World Cup game — provides the emotional weight necessary for Waititi’s picture. Identifying as Faʻafafine, a term for a third gender in Samoan culture, Kaimana brings a specificity to Jaiyah’s struggles and triumphs while playing for the men’s football team through their acting debut. The combination of Waititi’s comedic charm and transgender representation might come across as awkward, but it works well enough to fulfill the narrative and encourage inclusivity in film casting.
As expected from Taika Waititi, the film seamlessly integrates his signature comic style to push the narrative forward, reshaping what would have been an otherwise mundane inspirational sports story into a captivating and entertaining experience. Ambition for the humor found in his earlier works is clearly lacking, but the film inspires enough laughter to make it a pleasurable experience overall.
Moreover, the film’s atmosphere does well to facilitate Waititi’s humor, painting American Samoa with a colorful vibrancy that welcomes viewers into the community-centric tropical islands. This setting also perfectly establishes the narrative framework for Rongen’s culture clash — bridging the gap between his European background and that of the small island cultures. Within the discrepancy of both worlds, Rongen learns to appreciate the simplicities of life embraced by the islanders and begins to adopt pieces of their lifestyle.
Though certainly not as impressionable as his other works, “Next Goal Wins” is just fine, and that’s all it needs to be. The film doesn’t reduce itself to a sports narrative where the only action is found in kicking the ball, but rather roots itself in the richness of the interaction and growth between the team members over the course of their odyssey. It achieves its goal, infusing a sports narrative with humor, emotion and gratification. In the chronology of Waititi’s filmography, “Next Goal Wins” is a welcome departure from his global cash grabs, rendering it an enjoyable experience for fans and unfamiliar viewers alike.