Written by: Treasure McCorkle | November 16th, 2023
Next Goal Wins (Taika Waititi, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Taika Waititi is a Maori-Jewish actor-director best known for his clever and comedic works, ranging from the dark comedy film Jojo Rabbit to the Marvel hit Thor: Ragnarok. Though his works tend to all be eclectic in their own right, what makes each of them work is the immense amount of sincerity that they contain. Next Goal Wins is no different, combining the quite funny premise of a soccer team famously never winning a game with a community of people often overlooked or ignored by their own government.
Next Goal Wins is a sports comedy centered around the real story of Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant), and the weeks leading up to him attempting to make one of the “weakest” football (er–soccer, for the Americans) teams in the world into one of the elites. This ensemble cast includes a lot of great actors, with the football team itself consisting entirely of Pacific Islanders.
This film is the typical comedic underdog story, coupled with themes of grief, acceptance, and resilience. Thomas Rongen is given a second chance at his career in football coaching after his horrible temper and poor sportsmanship gets him blacklisted. He’s flown out to American Samoa and is given lodging right amongst the locals, where he is neck deep in a culture entirely dissimilar to his own.
Rongen provides the football team with the education and structure necessary to succeed in a competitive match. In exchange, the people he’s surrounded by—namely Tavita (Oscar Kightley, The Breaker Upperers) and Jaiyah (Kaimana)—provide him with the necessary outside perspectives that allow him to practice introspection and reflect on his personal relationships.
It’s very clear that this film is a love letter to American Samoans and their home and culture, as well as a sincere nod to nonbinary and trans people that wrestle with the restrictive rules and regulations not only enforced on them by the sports that they play but also the society that they live in. Jaiyah is a trans woman on an all-male football team—accepted and protected by the entire team—and the fact that she is a main character in the film is absolutely monumental. But the movie is not perfect.
The relationship between Jaiyah and Thomas has a very hostile beginning, with Thomas going so far as to deadname her in defense of the rules, and after the ensuing altercation, Jaiyah apologizes to Thomas first for shoving him. Most people would agree that Thomas should have been the one to initially apologize for openly disrespecting and disregarding not only Jaiyah’s identity as a trans woman but also her cultural title as it was explained. There is far more to Jaiyah’s story, but starting it this way left an uneasiness that was hard to shake.
Regardless, their relationship improves over the course of the film. It’s a bit muddy as to whether this relationship should be perceived as romantic or platonic until the end (spoiler alert: it’s platonic!), but it’s extremely important to driving the plot forward and contributing to Thomas’ arc of bettering himself and being a proper coach to the team.
Overall, the film succeeds in a lot of great ways; it’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it’s grounded in reality. It mainly falls short in its length; an hour and forty-five minutes just isn’t enough time to have a deep dive into the teammates this film is meant to focus on, and it very clearly lacks depth in that department. Otherwise, just watch out for the mild transphobia and occasionally inappropriately timed jokes.