Next Goal Wins review: "Taika Waititi’s funny and feel-good underdog story"

Next Goal Wins
(Image: © Searchlight Pictures)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

A familiar story, sure, but Taika Waititi’s funny and feel-good underdog tale is extremely easy to warm to.

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Next Goal Wins premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2023. Here’s our review…

Intentionally or otherwise, Taika Waititi’s feature-directing filmography tends to offset his massive Thor movies with smaller, character-based dramedies. As Jojo Rabbit followed Ragnarok, so Next Goal Wins follows Love and Thunder, shedding heavy FX and franchise obligations for a smaller-scale one-off.

Next Goal Wins shares its title and premise with a 2014 British documentary about the American Samoa national football (as in soccer) team, notoriously one of the worst in the international game. Humiliatingly, they famously received a 31-0 thumping from Australia in 2001. Cut to a decade later: ahead of the 2011 qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup, US-based coach Thomas Rongen (played here by Michael Fassbender) is parachuted in to see if he can bring some life to the team.

Given that the historic 31-0 drubbing verges on the slapstick (conceding goals at a rate of one every three minutes, on average), it feels fitting that this loose reconstruction of events goes broad with the humor. It categorically will not win anyone over who is averse to Waititi’s sense of humor: the film opens with the writer/director/actor setting the stage with a toothy, wiggy intro. But for fans of his shambolic, low-key, irreverent style, there’s much to enjoy.

As far as sports movies go, there’s no reinventing of the wheel. All the requisite beats are hit, albeit with self-deprecating humour and knowing genre references. But within that familiar framework, the underdog story is very effectively delivered, thanks in large part to a charming bunch of supporting characters, and a consistently funny script by Waititi and the Inbetweeners’ Iain Morris.

Fassbender, returning from hiatus with a festival double-bill - he also stars in a very different role in The Killer, which premiered at Venice - is largely the straight man. A grumpy, heavy-drinking fish out of water, he’s given this unwelcome transfer after his career has hit the skids. HIs personal life’s in turmoil too; Elisabeth Moss plays his wife, who also works in football, which is slightly awkward now that they’re separated. But her role is very much on the sidelines, as Rongen does his best to turn around the team, and, yes, his own life as well.

Many of the laughs come from the story’s culture-clash aspects. Waititi affectionately lampoons the South Pacific setting and its inhabitants; jabs are thrown at the everybody-knows-everybody island life and the team's general lack of fitness, discipline, and sporting prowess. The player with the most depth is Jaiyah (Kaimana), who is transgender, or more specifically, fa'afafine, and her relationship with the new coach adds the most interesting dramatic dimension to the film.

The idyllic setting also adds to the ease with which the film goes down. And while the path to the crucial climactic match is a familiar one, there are a few welcome spins on some sports-movie staples, not least a rousing speech that delivers an emotional jolt that’s not quite the one you’re expecting. So while Next Goal Wins’ formation might not be anything particularly innovative, more than enough shots land on target.

Next Goal Wins is in US cinemas on November 17 and in UK cinemas on December 26. 

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Matt Maytum
Editor, Total Film

I'm the Editor at Total Film magazine, overseeing the running of the mag, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.