New Zealand filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi has established himself through his off-the-wall humour and exaltation of indigenous culture. After establishing his directorial craft with superhero films such as Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder, as well as the black comedy Jojo Rabbit, Waititi returns with a film that fully expresses his cultural and artistic vision.
Next Goal Wins tells the story of the American Samoa football team (soccer in the US), that suffered the worst defeat in World Cup history when they lost 31-0 to Australia in 2001. When the qualifying session for the 2014 World Cup approaches, the team hires the hapless and unconventional coach, Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), to help them revive their fortune. The plight of transforming what is considered one of the weakest football teams in the world into an elite squad, is sprinkled with humorously desecrating instants. The cast includes New Zealand actors Oscar Kightley, David Fane, Rachel House and Beulah Koale. There is also Kaimana, a non-binary Samoan actor who plays the fa’afafine player Jaiyah Saelua, who was the first transgender player ever to compete in a World Cup qualifier game. The cast further comprises Will Arnett and Elisabeth Moss. The latter portrays Thomas Rongen’s ex-wife Gail, who allows to gently delve into the coach’s backstory and understand his cantankerous behaviour.
@Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Taika Waititi’s sports-comedy drama — that premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival — is based on a true story and on Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s 2014 documentary, also called Next Goal Wins. Waititi’s picture initially might come across as the classical parable of the white man who seems to be appointed with a mission to save an indigenous nation, and instead gets saved by the experience. But as the film progresses the cultural cliches wither away, allowing sport to emerge as a universal tool for connection and healing.
The plot and themes may somehow remind of Jon Turteltaub’s 1993 film, Cool Runnings, based on the true story of four Jamaican bobsleighers determined to join the Winter Olympics, who sought the help of a disgraced white coach. Next Goal Wins, similarly choses the feel-good movie approach, yet it enriches it with outrageous detours that leave spectators openmouthed, as it eventually returns on the inspirational track. The film takes a while to truly kick off, as we observe the team’s training and the coach’s bursts of anger, channeled with slap-stick entertainment. Only when we get a more multifaceted presentation of Thomas Rongen’s past experiences, do we fully appreciate the cinematic journey and what it represents.
@Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Taika Waititi was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2022. His latest directorial work attests his role as an artist who is providing a voice for what in the past he has defined as ‘normal’ Indigenous representation. The white lens has often stereotyped native people. On the other hand, Waititi uses his influence to establish inclusivity, without disdaining to poke fun at some of the traditions of his people. Self-irony becomes a tool of enfranchisement, whilst establishing the normalcy of certain cultural traits.
Next Goal Wins, brings to the screen both the white and native angles, without taking sides. This balance is definitely the result of a script that was penned in unison by Taika Waititi and English writer Iain Morris. Hence, the indigenous and Western vision coalesce, to portray the perspectives of the Samoan people as well as the one of the Dutch-American coach and his US relatives and colleagues, who encourage him in his Oceanic (pun intended!) challenge. The audience watches from the sidelines, but feels fully immersed in the game, admiring how Taika Waititi scores his artistic goal.
Final Grade: B-