Taika Waititi had two goals when approaching Next Goal Wins: one was to make sure people who looked like him found their way onto mainstream screens; two was making sure they were depicted taking the piss out of each other. He joked, after the world premiere, that Pacific Islanders are always shown playing majestic music and looking regal when reality was an infinite wealth of good-natured ribbing. And who better to embody that lack of self-satisfied pretension than arguably the worst soccer team to ever hit an international pitch: the American Samoa national football team, which lost to Australia 31 to nil in 2001.

As the island’s priest (Waititi) explains during his opening narration, the squad might have played even worse in the decade-plus that goes by once the film hits 2014. It’s here that Football Federation American Samoa president Tavita (Oscar Kightley) decides something needs to change. With World Cup qualifiers just a few weeks away, he’s not even looking for a win. He merely wants a goal. And as luck has it, the tempestuous Dutch-born coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender because, as the real Rongen tells it, “Taika said his ‘fat friend’ Russell Crowe couldn’t run anymore”) is fired around the same time and given an ultimatum: leave American soccer or take the American Samoa reins.

Working from Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s documentary of the same name, Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris seek to bring the real-life underdog story of this 2014 team to the masses with enough embellishment and humor to make watching their film necessary. Taika admits that because you could just watch the original to get all the details, he sought to capture the spirit of the journey and its “family is what you make it” philosophy first and foremost. So he makes the scenario as dire as can be, the team proving unable to even get their Haka correct––let alone their positions on the field. It’s become so bad that the territory’s best players have all retired to avoid even more shame.

Waititi and Morris ultimately turn to caricature to round out a group led by fa’afafine defender Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana)––the first transgender player to compete in a FIFA qualifier––ensuring the whole feels very much like a classic sports comedy à la Cool Runnings. She is constantly zoning-out and playing with her hair. Daru (Beulah Koale) can’t help sliding every chance he gets, earning a penalty due to his inability to hit anything but the opposing players’ shins. Rambo (Semu Filipo) has an unstoppable kick if he can just set it on a tee first. The list goes on, kooky characters delivering comic relief in the background as Jaiyah, Tavita, and Rongen check the feel-good crowd-pleaser boxes with emotional heft.

To say the finished result is by-the-numbers structurally would therefore be a waste of words; someone who’s never seen a film before could tell as much. Waititi isn’t trying to break the mold, though. He’s looking to put his people into the mold. And when the story is as heartwarmingly pure and exciting as this one––jokes effectively toe the line between absurd and dark (never underestimate a well-placed bus coming from offscreen to annihilate someone), as is Taika’s trademark––you can’t ignore that its familiarity pales in comparison to its fun. Because for every calculated inspirational beat of lesson-learning comes a quirky running joke like Rongen’s child assistant Armani (Armani Makaiwa). Laughing isn’t optional.

The serious players––Elisabeth Moss as Rongen’s soon-to-be ex-wife Gail; Will Arnett as his not-quite-villainous boss Alex Magnussen––are sadly given about as much as Luke Hemsworth and Angus Sampson (who do little but dry-hump Fassbender and act as obnoxiously as possible whenever onscreen), but it’s not like anyone besides Kaimana receives more anyway (she’s fantastic). I really loved Kightley and the always-great Rachel House as his wife Ruth, though. They are pure love (as the entire island is), but also hilariously trying to game the “white savior” trope by talking in esoteric riddles for Rongen’s benefit. And while Fassbender is great as their outsider, even his role has little meat (besides a not-so-secret secret).

Goal‘s not going to win any awards, but it should do very well with audiences starved for mid-budget comedies. The true-story angle helps; the representation angle adds more incentive to choose it over whatever lowest-common-denominator romp might be playing in the next theater. Because despite there being zero surprises from start to finish as it fulfills its mass-marketed, for-profit formula, Next Goal Wins never talks down to us. It ensures its characters learn from their mistakes and that any mean-spiritedness is exposed as being about the giver rather than the receiver. Rongen and the team are growing––individually, together. They’re seizing their second chance to be better, knowing the winning will follow.

Next Goal Wins premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and opens on November 17.

Grade: B-

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