By Meg Shields
Wouldn’t it be great if the guy behind Hunt For the Wilderpeople and Boy took a break from counting his Marvel money to make another intimate, small-stakes feel-good drama set in Polynesia? Pay no attention to that curling monkey’s paw. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins dramatizes the American Samoa soccer team’s efforts to redeem themselves after a historic 31-0 loss against Australia. To whip the team into shape, the Federation sends irritable boozehound Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) to be their new coach. A paint-by-numbers underdog sports tale ensues.
While Next Goal Wins is a clear improvement on Thor: Love and Thunder and Jojo Rabbit, that’s a low bar. To his credit, even when he’s asleep at the wheel (rightfully so, with nothing substantive to chew on), glimpses of Fassbender’s screen presence manage to seep through. Oscar Kightley, playing the team’s manager, provides the true heart of the film and its strongest performance. Rachel House is always radiant, but sadly receives even less screentime than the film’s own director, who appears (once again, and without irony) as a babbling priest.
Despite Next Goal Wins’ status as a homecoming of sorts for its director, the film suffers tremendously from the same lampshading and patronizing pop culture pulls that have marred much of Waititi’s recent work. As we’ve come to expect from a man who doesn’t know who directed Casablanca, whenever the film threatens to become anything daring or nuanced, it cannonballs through the nearest window, Ted Lasso-style. In the third act, we learn that Jaiyah Saelua, a member of the fa’afafine played by nonbinary actor Kaimana, paused her HRT to help the team perform better. However true the real-life incident may be, the film’s audacity to frame the scene (and Jaiyah herself) as mere character development for Fassbender, is just the most egregious of its many sins. I simply cannot hold any more yellow cards.