Taika Waititi’s Latest Is A Disastrous Sports Movie [TIFF 2023]

Inexplicably, “Next Goal Wins” is narrated by Waititi himself, who also appears in the film as a priest. The narration offers absolutely nothing in terms of development or insight, instead feeling like little more than a wink-wink-nudge-nudge opportunity to see Waititi in the film he’s written and directed — except it comes off more like groan-groan wince-wince. It’s a weird addition to “Next Goal Wins” that only serves to distract from the main story, coming across as an unbalanced ego rather than a thoughtful storytelling decision.

Every plot beat of “Next Goal Wins” goes how’d you expect. In the beginning, we see the American Samoa soccer team struggle in a performance, looking out of sync and discombobulated. The moment you see it you just know that a training montage is coming where they will do the exact same thing, but in sync. And rest assured, that’s exactly what happens! The script, written by Waititi and Iain Morris, apes countless other sports movies, closely following a formula. The dialogue is so lifeless and the characters so one-dimensional, painting in the broadest possible strokes that the formulaic nature has rarely felt this grating and exhausting.

The movie makes the baffling decision to focus on the irascible coach Rongen and his quest to turn the American Samoan team into winners. There’s not much to Rongen — he’s prone to rage, is suffering through a divorce, and … okay, that’s pretty much it. There’s genuinely nothing interesting about the character, and even less compelling is Fassbender’s performance, who seems bored out of his mind, not even attempting to add layers to the character. There’s a joke early in the film about how the introduction of Rongen would create a white savior narrative. That’s funny until you realize that’s exactly what happens. When Rongen is on the phone with his ex-wife, she tells him, “We didn’t send you there to help them. We sent you there to help you.” This isn’t helped by the fact that “Next Goal Wins” has no interest whatsoever in establishing the soccer players — if you can remember more than two of their names a day after seeing the film I’d be stunned.

The one other character besides Rongen the film is interested in is Jaiyah (Kaimana), the first trans woman to ever play in a World Cup qualifier. Kaimana does the best they can in the role, but the relationship between Rongen and Jaiyah is incredibly distasteful — disingenuous at best, and transphobic at worst. Rongen repeatedly deadnames Jaiyah, disrespecting her basic humanity in an attempt to motivate her. It’s all queasily wrapped up in a quick apology, and then Rongen continues to be awful, but that’s apparently okay, because the movie decides it is. Their unlikely friendship forms the emotional crux of the film, but it’s completely unbelievable.

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