Matt Zoller Seitz
November 17, 2023
Can you name a movie formulaic if it is based mostly on issues that actually occurred? Maybe. As with any film, it is all concerning the tone and magnificence: the alternatives made by the storytellers. “Next Goal Wins” is case examine, sadly. It’s an inspirational soccer comedy, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi (two Thor movies, “JoJo Rabbit,” et al) with Iain Morris (“The Inbetweeners”). The screenplay relies on occasions that truly occurred: In 2014, Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen was despatched to American Samoa to coach their crew in order that they might qualify for the FIFA World Cup 13 years after struggling the worst loss in World Cup historical past (31-0) towards Australia. The finish product works despite itself, virtually inexplicably so at occasions. It could, in reality, be probably the most persuasive instance but of the indestructibility of the underdog sports activities film template, which has served untold numbers of movies. It may have been commissioned as a part of a scientific experiment that hoped to reply the query, “Is the underdog sports activities film format so foolproof that it will make folks cry and cheer even when the film is competent at finest, and deeply irritating at worst?”
From a fourth-wall breaking prologue during which Waititi (because the narrator, a neighborhood priest) mugs for the digital camera and tells us that it is a true story with gildings and you may by no means know what’s what, by way of the expository montage concerning the American Samoan crew’s full humiliation and demoralization, by way of the arrival of the depressed, alcoholic, delinquent Rongen and the meeting and betterment of the crew and the portrayal of American Samoa because the South Pacific model of the cornball eccentric small cities in ’90s American comedies resembling “Doc Hollywood” and “My Cousin Vinny” by way of the upbeat, against-all-odds completely satisfied ending, “Next Goal Wins” is pleasantly listless. It sometimes appears to be elevating a mocking eyebrow at us whereas it barely tries (and never simply when Waititi’s narrator chimes in). It additionally has the off-putting behavior of calling our consideration to cliched moments by quoting dialogue and conditions from different sports activities films (notably ‘The Karate Kid” and “Any Given Sunday”) and different films, interval (Rongen cribs dialogue from “Taken” and, if my ear does not mistake me, “Malice”). It’s if Waititi and firm are tacitly admitting that it does not matter if the film is nice and even significantly good. Our Pavlovian conditioning as underdog sports activities film followers means we’ll turn into emotionally invested even when the script is stuffed with placeholder dialogue, and even when many of the film does not a lot appear directed as frivolously overseen, like a yard cleanup or the loading of a truck on shifting day—and even when the selection of protagonist is the least fascinating one doable for this explicit story. Which brings us to Rongen. He’s front-and-center from begin to end, and there is not a single different character on the island who would not have made a extra stunning and engaging alternative. Most of the crew’s gamers and their members of the family are barely developed as characters. The script retains working their names and summaries of their private tales into dialogue, as if to remind us who they’re and reassure us that they have not been utterly marginalized. The movie is primarily involved with the American Samoan victory as a manner of forcing Rongen to come back to phrases together with his alcoholism and the presumed reason behind it. Apparently, he was screwing up so badly in his earlier job that the league’s prime executives—which embrace Rongen’s ex-wife Gail, performed by Elisabeth Moss, and her new boyfriend, a smug and scatterbrained president performed by Will Arnett—despatched him to the island hoping the brand new project would assist him save himself. (A stunning quantity of this film is Apple TV’s “Ted Lasso,” however with the clean-living, relentlessly constructive title character changed by a depressing drunk.)
All of the opposite characters exist in relation to Rongen and his unhappiness—together with Tavita (Oscar Kightley), the top of the American Samoa soccer federation, who’s handled as a cuddly non secular sherpa for the hero. Rongen is such an unrelentingly bitter and abusive jerk to everybody all through many of the movie’s operating time that your thoughts could typically turn into preoccupied by ideas like “Is this a nation of saints whose solely function in life is to smile and bear it as vacationers insult them?” and “If Rongen had been only a common particular person fairly than a coach, he would get crushed up lots.” (Fassbender’s efficiency, by the best way, is horrible, perhaps the worst he is ever given; at occasions he appears to be doing a mediocre impression of Bryan Cranston as Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and there is a vacantness in his eyes throughout “emotional” scenes that is unnerving.) Rongen’s “redemption arc” is threaded by way of his relationship with one of many gamers, Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), a fa’afafine (the “third gender” in American Samoa, usually transgender or nonbinary). Saelua, like everybody else on this story, relies on an actual particular person: a middle again for the American Samoa nationwide crew who ultimately transitioned to feminine and was the first brazenly non-gender binary participant to compete in a FIFA qualifying match. In different phrases, an individual in contrast to any you’ve got seen in a sports activities film, and a real pioneer. Yet Saelua is written as form of a stiff-upper-lip sub-Jackie Robinson kind who smiles anxiously or appears away in damage and suffers by way of varied indignities and insults by Rongen out of affection for the game, a need to compete, and (it turns into clear) a perception that there is a respectable particular person inside the coach who will be introduced out with somewhat little bit of kindness. Waititi and his collaborators cease simply wanting having Saelua exist solely to redeem and enhance the coach as a human being. But they appear to know that they are skating on a knife-edge of condescension as a result of they’ve the indigenous characters joke about Rongen as an embodiment of the “white savior” trope in storytelling, but they by no means vigorously push towards it, regardless that Rongen fails and fails and fails his crew and himself.
Rongen deadnames Saelua throughout a heated second at apply, simply to twist the knife a bit extra. The movie does not have the delicacy or perception to do something with this disturbing second besides shrug it off till later and let it stand as simply one other instance of how sad Rongen is (he did not actually imply it, you see; it was simply the booze and melancholy speaking). Saelua ultimately forgives and forgets and is the primary particular person to increase an olive department (within the type of visiting Rongen’s bungalow with a match videotape for them each to examine) regardless that it is Rongen who needs to be doing the extending. This paves the best way for a “large reveal” that’s purported to make us forgive Rongen due to how a lot he is suffered. The clean-scrubbed company model of progressive enlightenment so proudly showcased within the Saelua-Rongen subplot, in addition to in Rongen’s relationship to the group he brazenly resents, is attribute of Waititi, who in 2019 boldly made a movie satirizing Adolph Hitler. (Hitler by no means recovered.) “Next Goal Wins” turns into a rah-rah, crowd-pleasing sports activities image in its remaining stretch, when the squad goes into motion and defies the oddsmakers, however even then it is oddly bitter, with the hot-tempered Rongen proving but once more how terrible he’s at dealing with moments that do not go the best way he needed. Material higher suited to a ’70s antihero film is given the sketch comedy therapy as a substitute. “Next Goal Wins” exists as proof of the invulnerability of a sure film template, and as a Frankenstein patchwork of earlier movies. There’s a little bit of “Cool Runnings” (white man coaches nonwhite crew overseas) and a little bit of “The Bad News Bears” (boozing jerk of a coach finds function by way of sports activities) and items of movies concerning the capability of crew sports activities to heal traumas. You’ll cheer anyway as a result of the folks on the crew are all respectable and deserve happiness and a win. But saying a film succeeds despite itself isn’t a praise. In theaters now.
Matt Zoller Seitz
Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.
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Next Goal Wins (2023)
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