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Film: Next Goal Wins
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Taika Waititi, Will Arnett
Co-Writer/Director: Taika Waititi
Rating: 2.5/5
Runtime: 104 min

This one is a stock formulaic sports comedy even though it’s based on real events, with Taika Waititi himself presiding ( as narrator / priest) over the resurrection of American Samoa (not to be mixed up with Samoa) World Cup yet-to-qualify football team. The treatment is silly, pretty much light-weight and irreverent, yet it manages to get you involved in its mockumentary-like playful gimmicks. Like the story it parlays, this film has rather feeble ambitions.

The revving up of the team and the taking account of it on film are happening side-by-side and there’s much more than just football training happening here. Imagine a losing team who hasn’t scored a single goal and has let in the highest number of goals (31) in a World Cup qualifier, trying to aim for a small uplift target of scoring at least one goal. It wasn’t going to happen with their existing mild-mannered soft-hearted coach…

Following that harrowing humiliating trouncing by Australia, the American Samoa football team belonging to a tiny group of small islands in the middle of the Pacific, kept playing in the hope that they would score at least one goal sometime… But for that the U.S. Soccer Federation had to lend them help for their prep by sending Former pro player turned coach (now disgraced and on a sort-of punishment posting), Dutch-American, Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) to get them out of the deep hole they appear to have dug for themselves. The team which falls back on Island time and culture when yelled at, has little skill, poor athletic ability, and no discipline, and has a long way to go.

Taika Waititi with the help of cinematographer Lachlan Milne takes the audience on a guided tour of the island world — delving into the lives of the players who moonlight with several jobs and have several limitations they live and play under. This effort is set in 2011 with the poor country devastated by earthquake and trauma (2009), hoping to lift the island spirits with the team which is underfunded and has little experience of hard-edged competitiveness. What you get to see thereafter is a display of soft-edged heart, guts, and glory from a team that was once the butt of all football jokes for the longest time.  

No one is expecting much from Rongen especially when he is not allowed leeway even in team composition. Humiliated goalie Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), who carries the ignominy of having allowed those 31 goals against Australia, and a fa’afafine/transgender Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), are members of the team and their presence is not frowned upon. Jai’s presence is what lends heart to the team trying hard to score in a machismo sport. Waititi’s narrative is a sort of charm offensive with Fassbender, as the washed-up Rongen, going from a sort of villain to hero in less than two hours. He goes through those motions as a routine though. He has able support of Semu Filipo as Rambo, Beulah Koale as Daru, and Oscar Kightley as Tavita who runs the Football Federation of American Samoa (and also a restaurant), and sees Thomas as his team’s last hope. Elisabeth Moss as Rongen’s ex-wife and Will Arnett as her current paramour are peripheral characters in this comic sports drama.

The film is big on characters and humourous situations. While all the players here have relatable and likable mini-arcs, the script flounders. Waititi shores up the humor and heart quotient but fails to make this experience an unforgettable one. The story is predictable, the pacing is languid and the training and sporting scenes are devoid of real competitiveness. Waititi and his team’s concentration on the human and cultural elements doesn’t allow for much depth or complexity in the story-telling.

The expected against-all-expectations happy ending, several cliched moments, obvious dialogue, situations riffing other sports movies, and an overall goofball comedy mindset plague the film greatly. It’s an underdog sports movie and it’s expected that you will become emotionally invested in it – a kind of premeditated effortlessness one would call it. ‘Next Goal Wins’ is no ‘Jojo Rabbit’(Waititi’s celebrated satire on Hitler) and if you were expecting it to be, just get your head out from the clouds!



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