As part of our coverage of the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Taika Waititi’s latest cinematic crime against humanity, ‘Next Goal Wins.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
If you’re worried that you won’t like Next Goal Wins because you’re not a soccer person, don’t worry. There are plenty of other reasons not to like it.
Based on a true story, Next Goal Wins follows the downtrodden American Samoa soccer team, who are still smarting from a historic 31 – 0 loss against Australia. The team has set their sights on an admirably humble benchmark: to score at least one goal during the season.
The American Football Federation has thrown the team a bone in the form of Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a drunk with anger issues who has reluctantly agreed to be their new coach. What follows is a predictable, soft-edged underdog sports tale about a team of losers (Rongen included) beating the odds. The film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor does it want to. In fact, it’s keen to gesture to other and much better wheels like The Karate Kid and Cool Runnings to piggyback on their goodwill with audiences. It doesn’t work.
Charitably, at least on paper, Next Goal Wins wasn’t a terrible career move for Waititi. Fans of his earlier works, like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, would be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief when they saw the director was returning to the realm of small-stakes dramedies set in Polynesia.
Regrettably, Next Goal Wins is less of a homecoming than it is a half-hearted creative shrug. Much of the main cast (with the notable exceptions of the always-great Oscar Kightley and Rachel House) are asleep at the wheel. Perhaps if Fassbinder had more to do than get plastered on the beach and grimace he could have done something with the role. We’ll simply never know.
For their part, nonbinary actor Kaimana does a heroically solid job as Jaiyah Saelua, a member of the fa’afafine who was the first gender non-conforming person to play in the World Cup. Their performance is one of the highlights of the film, and of the whole cast, they are given the most dramatic meat to chew on, which, it turns out, isn’t necessarily a good thing in Waititi’s hands.
Truth be told, someone as flippant as Waititi is the last person in the rolodex who should be trusted to handle subject matter that demands any degree of tact or sensitivity. As others have rightfully pointed out, Next Goal Wins is bafflingly transphobic, for no reason other than to “add drama” and unnecessary character development for Fassbender’s character. At one point, Rongen repeatedly deadnames Jaiyah in an attempt to lay down the law, only for her to sincerely apologize in a later scene. At another point, she smiles as Rongen inquires invasively about her genitals.
But the real kicker is in the film’s wet fart of a third act when Rongen discovers Jaiyah sobbing in the bathroom before their first qualifying game. His response to Jaiyah going off HRT to “perform better” is to tell her that she’s inspiring and to make her the team captain. Problem solved. The added wrinkle is that, as demonstrated in the 2014 documentary of the same name, the real Thomas Rongen doesn’t seem to be transphobic at all. Imagine Taika Waititi making a movie about a cool chapter of your life and deciding to make you look like an intolerant asshole to spice up the story. Given the director’s past ineptitudes for challenging and sensitive topics, none of this is surprising. But it’s embarrassing that he keeps getting away with it, and that audiences keep giving him the thumbs up.
The film’s stupefyingly cruel treatment of Jaiyah is easily the film’s largest sin. But wait, there’s more! The lampshading Waititi has regrettably popularized is in full force, as are the soulless completely uncalled-for pop culture references to movies you’d rather be watching. At one point, Rongen verbatim quotes Liam Neeson’s meme-ified “special set of skills” monologue from Taken for absolutely no salient reason. Waititi also wants you to know that he’s seen The Matrix, too, in case you were wondering. Remember The Matrix everybody? That film famously directed by two trans women? How cool is it that it’s being cited here?
It is my sincere hope that audiences will not fall for Waititi’s sagging, rotten bag of tricks this go-round. He needs a time-out on the bench. And a handful of yellow cards for good measure.
‘The Holdovers’ is currently slated for a release date of November 17, 2023. Check out the trailer, here: