Returning to the colorful character work of his early New Zealand-based indies, ‘Boy’ and ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople,’ the half-Māori helmer pays respect (by poking fun) at another indigenous island culture.
Does it count as a white savior movie if the white character is the one who needs saving? In “Next Goal Wins,” the world’s top-grossing indigenous director, Taika Waititi, retells the story of how American Samoa went from having the world’s worst soccer team to, well, not the worst. While a white man was involved, the movie — which suggests how a film like “Cool Runnings” might be made with 30 years’ more cultural enlightenment — is mostly about how their coach (Michael Fassbender) needs an attitude adjustment. Come to think of it, that’s essentially the formula for most white savior movies.
In 2001, the American Samoa soccer team set a world record. They lost the World Cup Qualification game 31-0. Apparently, they only got worse from there. Enter Fassbender’s character, Thomas Rongen, a hothead with an alcohol problem and an emotional backstory which the movie keeps up its sleeve until halftime of the climactic game. His job is not to turn this team of losers into winners; his job is to help them score one goal. Will Thomas Rongen get his temper and drinking in check? Will Thomas Rongen refer to the personal tragedy that’s been making him so insufferable in the locker room before the second half of the final game?
You do not go to a movie called “Next Goal Wins” to be surprised. In fact, if you have ever seen a movie before, you have already seen “Next Goal Wins.” That movie doesn’t even have to be “Next Goal Wins,” the 2014 documentary on which Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris based their remake. Maybe you’ve seen “The Mighty Ducks.” Or “Major League.” Heck, even if the only film you’ve ever seen is “The Human Centipede,” you can figure out where “Next Goal Wins” is going. But that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy getting on a bus doing 20 in a 35 zone, headed straight for a destination anyone can imagine a mile away.
The idea is to have a good time, and Waititi knows how to give audiences that. Fassbender is essentially playing the wet blanket: a cranky man of ambiguous ancestry (the real-life Rongen was Dutch-American, but Fassbender isn’t doing an accent) whose ex-wife Gail (Elizabeth Moss) is now seeing the head of the American Soccer Federation (played by Will Arnett). In a cute bit of exposition, Thomas passes through all five stages of grief while learning first that he’s fired and then that a job awaits in American Samoa. As Gail later tells him on the phone, “We didn’t send you there to help them.” Guess what she says next. (“We sent you there to help you.”)
The team does help Thomas, who’s too busy throwing tantrums (and folding chairs and ice coolers) to teach the players basic formations. He puts them through drills. He insults them. He quits more than once. But Tavita (Oscar Kightley), who runs the Football Federation of American Samoa (and also a restaurant), sees Thomas as his team’s last hope — which isn’t wrong. If they don’t win, American Samoa will be booted from the World Cup. The whole island, including a local priest (played by Waititi in a goofy fake mustache), suddenly seems invested in the fate of a team that’s never won.
Most of the players, including Tavita’s son Daru (Beulah Koale) and gender-fluid Jaiyah (Kaimana), just want to have fun. The Jaiyah character, a female-identifying Fa’afafine who went on to be the first trans woman to play in a World Cup qualifier, is basically reason for this movie to exist, and though she gets plenty of screentime, the film’s only surprises involve her — which means a less clichéd and far more original version of this story might have been shaped around her journey. Two other players who rejoin the team after Thomas starts coaching, goalie Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu) and power forward Rambo (Semu Filipo), demonstrated interesting personalities as well. The rest are basically just comic relief.
But this is a comedy, after all, so expect to see balls bouncing off of people’s faces and stunts that look like they belong in a “Ted Lasso” bloopers reel. Speaking of “Ted Lasso,” that show is probably the best thing that could have happened to this film’s chances, since the last great soccer movies were “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Shaolin Soccer” more than 20 years ago. But “Ted Lasso” showed either that people lowered their standards during the pandemic or that the audience for broad, group-hug soccer comedy is much bigger than Hollywood estimated. Either way, it’s a promising sign for “Next Goal Wins.”