Director: Taika Waititi
Writers: Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane
Duration: 103 mins
Available in: Theatres
Hollywood studios have a reputation for flattening talent. Stories of the director who has to submit to the producer’s demands, the writer who has to sacrifice originality for what is considered marketable, the actor who only gets the roles they deserve once they become producer — these anecdotes about the lack of creative agency in show business have become clichés. Producers are known for being the bad guys who flex their executive muscles by reducing a creative idea to its most basic, commercial version. So when a film takes from a charming documentary about the real-life story of underdogs in football and turns it into an underwhelming, trope-laden dud, it’s tempting to point the critical finger at the producer. The problem for Next Goal Wins (2024) is that one of its producers is also its director, co-writer and a member of the cast: Taika Waititi.
Based on the 2014 documentary with the same title, Next Goal Wins is the story of how the football team from American Samoa qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 2014. As underdog stories go, this one is a classic. Not only was American Samoa at the very bottom of FIFA’s rankings at the time, the team’s awfulness was part of football history, thanks to a historic defeat of 31-0 (to Australia) in 2001. Desperate for redemption, the island’s rag-tag bunch of players and sports administrators pinned their hopes on a foreign coach, who came with his own baggage of grief. Ultimately, it took a little more than a month for American Samoa to get itself a team that did the island proud and the documentary highlighted what a big deal the little wins with the low stakes can be.
Waititi manages to take every heartwarming detail from the documentary and whittle it down to a punchline that doesn’t land. From Waititi putting on fake teeth, a moustache and doing his Korg voice, to drawing boobs on a grown man’s face, and Michael Fassbender’s whiter-than-white adjustment issues as coach Thomas Rongen, Next Goal Wins is painfully tiresome. It should have been a fun, feelgood film, but the only emotion Waititi successfully evokes is frustration. We know from his past work, like What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and the more recent Our Flag Means Death, that Waititi can do better than what he serves up in Next Goal Wins.
Instead of bringing out what makes American Samoa distinctive, this film sinks the plot into a swamp of clichés. Fassbender’s Rongen is given anger issues and a failed marriage in his backstory, which add nothing to either plot or character. The story of the first non-binary footballer — shown with grace in the documentary — is packaged in unnecessary tropes like having the character twirl their hair and be conventionally girly. In the documentary, one of Rongen’s achievements is to have spotted Jaiyeh Saelua’s talent and utilising the player to the best of their capability. Waititi tweaks this story and makes it seem as though Rongen was initially incapable of taking Jaiyeh seriously as a footballer until he saw his daughter in Jaiyeh. This conflating of the personal and the professional does the character no favours. The only silver lining is that Jaiyeh is played by someone who, like Saelua, also identifies as fa’afafine (third gender in Samoan society).
The plot of Next Goal Wins is perched on repeated digs at how island life is rooted in faith and exoticised by the West, but ultimately, the film ends up leaning into precisely those same clichés. However, tired as those attempts at humour are, the most questionable decision in Next Goal Wins is Waititi’s decision to show the island’s footballers as players who take the sport lightly. “Football’s fun,” says Jaiyeh with a nonchalant shrug, to Rongen, who repeatedly barks at her to pay attention on the field rather than just play with her hair. In contrast, the documentary showed how passionate all the players were about football despite their legacy of losses and the lack of facilities. No one in American Samoa could afford to play only football because it doesn’t pay, but they took the game seriously and trained to the best of their ability with all their dedication despite the lack of infrastructure. The real-life Rongen tells the documentary team that the American Samoans have shown him the importance of truly loving the game, rather than pursuing it as a profession. Waititi’s film takes this dignity away from the players, opting instead to suggest that it took the fictional Rongen — who doesn’t seem to be particularly in love with football himself — to make the American Samoans take the game seriously.
In the documentary, a character explains the title of the film as a saying that’s held out as hope. The idea of the next goal being a winner is an allusion to the American Samoan team’s unflagging hope, but it also applies as a metaphor for Waititi’s fans who have been disappointed by the awkward and unfunny Thor: Love and Thunder (2022). There’s been too little of the mischievous irreverence that made Waititi a star after Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Let’s hope the saying “next goal wins” is true for him because this film certainly doesn’t.