Taika Waititi takes a familiar genre and turns it on its head

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Next Goal Wins
Opens Nov. 17
3.5 out of 5

The honeymoon is over for Taika Waititi. The filmmaker’s journey from rags to Marvel was peppered with quality, light-hearted films that earned him a hefty amount of goodwill with critics and audiences, most notably What We Do in the Shadows. It’s no surprise his first Hollywood movie — Thor: Ragnarök — was treated as the arrival of a major (and enormously likeable) talent.

Since then, the Maori-Jewish director has showed his true colours: Waititi carries his Aboriginal identity in his sleeve, detests bullies and Nazis (at heart, the same), and has openly embraced the LGBTQ+ community like few filmmakers before him. He puts his values in action too in his movies (Jojo Rabbit) and TV shows (Our Flag Means Death). No wonder toxic fan boys, the alt-right, and humourless critics have soured on him.

And yet, the quality of his work has remained consistent. For all the grief Thor: Love and Thunder got, it was head-and-shoulders above Marvel’s output of late (Quantumania? Yeesh).

Closer in spirit to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Next Goal Wins does a terrific job subverting one of the most pervasive tropes in Western cinema: the white saviour (and to a lesser degree, hakas, ruined by Hollywood). The setup is classic for the genre. In 2001 the hapless American Samoa soccer team lost 31-0 to Australia in a qualifying match for the World Cup, a record for an international contest. In fact, they’d never scored a goal in official competition.

An embarrassment not only for the country but for football’s governing body — you know it’s bad when FIFA is mortified. So FIFA strongly suggests American Samoa hire a new coach. It even has a man for the job: Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a prone to anger, down on his luck Dutch American manager who’s basically forced into accepting the position.

The Samoans are perfectly aware of their lack of ability on the pitch, but they don’t see the beautiful game as a be-all end-all. For them, there’s more to life than drills by day and drink yourself silly at night.

The diverging philosophies place Rongen, who’s a bit of a transphobe, and Jaiyah (Kaimana), a transgender player, in collision course. The coach will only accept his version of masculinity on the field, never mind Jaiyah is one of the most skilled players in a team with very few.

While Next Goal Wins follows the traditional structure of the sports movie (it all leads to the Big Game), it undermines the genre from within. It’s even narratively adventurous: fourth walls get broken and critical junctures are dealt with offhandedly. The family drama surrounding Rongen isn’t nearly as compelling but serves the character’s growth.

Unlike the obvious point of comparison (the chronically self-satisfied Ted Lasso), Next Goal Wins isn’t cloying and the funny bits work, courtesy of a terrific Samoan-Maori cast. A recurrent joke about the multiple jobs Samoan-Americans must work to make a living gets traction both as comedy and as social critique (the U.S. cares precious little about the island’s development, let alone Samoan rights).

A pleasant experience throughout, there’s nothing about Next Goal Wins that will stick with you, unless you have issues with trans characters portrayed in a positive light. If that’s the case, maybe you’ll learn something, right Premier Moe? ■`