Movie Curiosities: Next Goal Wins

It should go without saying that Next Goal Wins is a Taika Waititi film. Any movie with this premise and this absurdly overqualified cast could only have been made directly by Waititi or with his involvement in some capacity. Oh, and Andy Serkis is on board as an exec producer, just to make it even more Pacific Islander. So let’s get to it, shall we?

We lay our scene in American Samoa (NOT to be confused with Samoa, which is a totally different country), a tiny little rock in the middle of the ocean, where modern technology is still stuck in the early ’90s. The island is populated by roughly 50,000 people who are extremely poor and highly religious. Our plot concerns the American Samoa national soccer team, which came to global infamy in 2001 with their first World Cup qualifying match.

To say that American Samoa got their asses kicked would be a laughable understatement. For their debut on the world stage, Australia beat them 31-0 (not a typo), the worst loss in the recorded history of soccer. And somehow, they only got worse from there. By the time our film picks up in 2011, the American Samoa team has gone ten freaking years without scoring a single goal.

And that’s not comedic writing, folks — that actually happened.

Enter Thomas Rongen, a notorious soccer coach here played by Michael Fassbender. I won’t go into details about the many personal and professional reasons why his career imploded, but the important thing is that Rongen got himself exiled to the American Samoa because he couldn’t get a coaching gig anywhere else. Upon arrival, he’s only given one objective: When the American Samoa national soccer team goes to the World Cup qualifying match in three weeks’ time, they have to score one goal.

That’s it. One goal. They don’t even have to win the game, they just need to score a single goal. That’s how low the bar has been set.

To address the elephant in the room, of course there was always a risk of Rongen coming in to be a White Savior. This trope is even lampshaded in the film itself. Cleverly, the film avoids this pitfall through the simple and effective measure of taking the piss out of Rongen at every possible opportunity.

There’s the culture clash aspect, as Rongen looks like a clueless idiot who can’t work with the standards and customs of American Samoa. There’s the career aspect, as Rongen is consistently reminded of how he’s only here because he blacklisted himself from coaching everywhere else. And of course there’s the humorous contrast between Rongen’s competence — or at least his work ethic — and the comically pathetic efforts of the team around him.

But easily the most important contrast of the film is between Rongen’s priorities and those of everyone around him. Rongen wants to redeem his career so he can move on to anyplace else, but everyone on the island is more or less content with what they have. Hell, if it wasn’t for deep-seated rivalry with the other Pacific islands, the American Samoans would probably be content to keep on sucking. They want to play soccer, sure, but only for love of the game. They don’t want to play — much less to win — at the expense of their culture, their scheduled religious worship, or their general mood.

The American Samoans don’t like stress or pressure, and they don’t want to win if it comes at the cost of their happiness. All of this is pure incomprehensible gibberish to Rongen, and to the greater world of sports as well. In the back half, when Rongen is far enough in his development arc to question his own mindset and who his people really are, the film is good enough to bring in Will Arnett (sleepwalking through yet another asshole turn), Elizabeth Moss (Seriously, what the hell are you doing here?), and Rhys Darby (It’s a Taika Waititi jam, of course he had to be in there somewhere) to remind Rongen that he’s coaching for the worst team in the world and his big ultimate challenge to score a single goal is outright pathetic. It’s humorous in a way that enhances the themes of the film and the protagonist’s development arc.

It’s an old established chestnut that “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s all how you play the game.” I personally doubt that anybody ever took that sentiment seriously in a culture that doesn’t reward or respect losers. It means something very different in the context of a culture that’s grown quite accustomed to losing.

At its heart and core, this is a movie about how to lose with dignity. It’s not a film about making the best of a bad situation, and it’s not about getting a long-term victory out of a short-term loss. This is a film about taking a humiliating unambiguous loss and coming out okay. It’s a film about how winning doesn’t mean anything if it comes at the cost of sacrificing personal values and identity. In this genre, there’s something subversive about that in a way that makes for smart comedy.

But then we have the other major character to address: Jaiyah Saelua, famously the first openly fa’afafine (that’s American Samoan for “LGBTQ+”) player in the history of major league soccer. She’s here played by newcomer Kaimana, a non-binary actor who also identifies as fa’afafine. I might add that the real Saelua was herself a constant presence on set, Jaiyah is a prominent and indispensable figure in moving the plot forward, and Rongen’s rocky lesson in accepting Jaiyah’s identity is a crucial factor of paramount importance in his growth toward accepting the cultural identities and differences of the entire team. Rongen may be the protagonist, but Jaiyah’s importance as a supporting character cannot be overstated.

Even so, it’s undeniably true that Jaiyah Saelua is a compelling figure in sports history whose life story comes ready-made for its own movie. I might add that Kaimana thoroughly dominates the screen, more than worthy of taking front and center as a headliner. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that putting such a fascinating trans character in a supporting role opposite a white cis-hetero male lead is a step backward.

That said, it’s important to remember the story that these particular filmmakers were trying to tell. If they wanted to tell the story of a groundbreaking trans athlete struggling for acceptance while playing for a team that everyone else in the whole damn world has written off as a laughingstock, that would’ve been a valid choice and making Jaiyah Saelua the protagonist would’ve made sense. But this was very much built to be a movie about learning how to accept failure with grace, rejecting the mindset of victory at any cost, in open defiance of what major league sports has become. That’s also a valid artistic statement to make, and I’m sorry, but Thomas Rongen is simply the better protagonist to tell that story.

But seriously, somebody please make that Jaiyah Saelua biopic. This needs to happen.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast is loaded with too many charming comedic turns from too many AAPI actors to list here. Highlights include David Fane in the role of Ace, the sweet and spineless assistant coach to Rongen. We’ve also got Oscar Kightley as Tavita, de facto owner of the American Samoa team, who desperately wants to cast himself as the Morpheus to Rongen’s Neo. And of course we can’t forget Waititi mainstay Rachel House, here tearing it up as Tavita’s wife.

Elsewhere, we’ve got some solidly amusing training montages. I was particularly impressed with how the filmmakers thought to compress the big climactic match — remarkably clever. The only big problem I have with the film is the monotone second act. Yes, it’s funny that Rongen is a fish out of water. Yes, it’s funny to contrast his ruthless ambition with the easygoing incompetence of everyone around him. But through so much of the film, that’s more or less the only card in the movie’s deck. The joke started wearing thin just in time for a training montage to pick the energy back up going into the third act.

Next Goal Wins is definitely a lesser entry in Waititi’s filmography, but that’s not saying much. If it doesn’t reach the heights of Hunt for the Wilderpeople or freaking Jojo Rabbit, that says more about those two masterpieces than it does about this picture. As it is, I found this a sweetly amusing film with a self-effacing charm and empowering yet subversive themes to set itself apart from other movies in the genre.

I can give this one an enthusiastic recommendation for home video.

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