After opening to mixed reviews overseas, Taika Waititi’s latest film had its New Zealand premiere on Monday night. Here’s what we made of it.
After years directing acclaimed and quintessentially New Zealand films, Taika Waititi hit the mainstream in 2017 when he helmed Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. He followed that up two years later with something completely different in the Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit.
Since then, Waititi has dipped back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2022’s weakly received Thor: Love and Thunder) and taken on TV projects like Our Flag Means Death and the critically beloved Reservation Dogs. Now, he’s back at the cinema with Next Goal Wins.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, it’s the true story of the American Samoa football team, at one point considered the worst team in the world, as they try to qualify for the Fifa World Cup with the help of their new coach Thomas Rongen, played here by Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender. Joining him is a supporting cast of local actors including Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Rachel House, alongside Americans Will Arnett and Elisabeth Moss.
After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier in the year, critics haven’t been particularly impressed with Next Goal Wins. It’s sitting right now at a lukewarm 42% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ahead of its release in New Zealand cinemas early next month, we headed along to the film’s New Zealand premiere to see for ourselves.
Just watch the documentary instead
Next Goal Wins follows a football team on a tiny Pacific island as they try to score just a single goal in an international match. The film features an ensemble cast of colourful characters, including players, coaches, locals and officials, all loosely (or closely) resembling real people. Yet the opening shot of Taika Waititi’s latest feature is a shot of… Taika Waititi.
That about sums up how the movie felt to watch: like I was watching a director phone it in, both in front of and behind the camera. The story itself is Hollywood fodder – a bunch of amateur players suffer embarrassing defeats to bigger football nations and a struggling professional coach is sent to turn the team around. Michael Fassbender delivers a solid and convincing performance as the frustrated Thomas Rongen, and the ensemble cast of footballers have great chemistry. David Fane stands out as the softly-spoken, quite bad coach that Rongen replaces.
And then there’s Waititi, playing the local priest and randomly breaking the fourth wall in the opening scene to unnecessarily explain that American Samoa is very religious (something that is made clear through a number of more subtle scenes later on). There is no reason for Waititi to be in Next Goal Wins. His role is lifted, almost identically, from the priest role he played in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Why? No idea, but it certainly doesn’t work.
I enjoyed the soundtrack of classic Samoan hymns and I enjoyed seeing the team and lesser known actors shining. I did not enjoy the handling of Jaiyah’s story as a fa’afine player. From what I remember, and from comments she’s made since this movie was released, Jaiyah’s gender identity didn’t impact her place in the team or her relationship to Rongen. Waititi elevates her gender to become a point of tension (somewhat expected in a Hollywood story) but doesn’t elevate it enough for the clumsy education of Rongen to feel warranted. And while the story certainly feels Samoan thanks to the supporting cast, there are still a few lazy gags that are less culturally insensitive and more culturally nonsensical (after a number of jokes about the team’s religion and church, they’re shown hesitantly mumbling through a popular kids song, out of tune and out of time).
Next Goal Wins, the 2014 documentary following the American Samoa football team as it struggles to win a single match or even score a goal, is heartwarming, funny and sensitively told. Next Goals Wins, the 2023 feature film based off the documentary and directed by Taika Waititi, is not. I’d recommend watching the documentary.
The one silver lining is that Waititi filming a Samoan movie and casting himself as a Samoan priest might finally explain why Rita Ora thinks her husband is Samoan. / Madeleine Chapman
Works better as a straight comedy
The underdog sports biopic is a format as tried as true as the rom com. While Next Goal Wins is ostensibly based on fact, and so the whole “will they or won’t they win” storyline is ingrained loosely in reality, it’s nonetheless told in a way that somehow makes you forget these were real people.
Taika Waititi’s last non-Marvel project Jojo Rabbit may have been divisive, but it was inarguably ambitious, emotional and original. None of these can really be said about Next Goal Wins, a by-the-book comedy that does manage to generate consistent laughs, a few moments of Hollywood heartstring pulling and showcase some good performances. But while the film works best as a mainstream comedy, and one that will likely find favour with audiences going into the summer break, it fails as a biopic and when compared with Waititi’s strongest works it falls behind the pack.
It could simply be that the ensemble cast is too unwieldy for Waititi’s skills as a director. His best work, like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy, focus on a small, core group. In Next Goal Wins, he has a whole team to make us care about. Aside from the story of fa’afine player Jaiyah, and to a lesser extent Oscar Kightley’s team manager Tavita, we learn very little about the players or their lives. In true sports biopic fashion, most scenes of the team training sessions are shown in montage, though it would have been more powerful to linger a little bit longer on the characters themselves. Somehow, Waititi even has time to pop up himself in a bizarre cameo.
Michael Fassbender delivers as the real life coach Thomas Rongen, and the supporting cast of familiar faces are all joyous to watch when given an opportunity. But by telling the story from the perspective of possibly the least interesting personality (Rongen), and even then barely scratching the surface of his story until the final act, I can’t help but feel there was a much better film to be made with this cast of characters and this moving story. / Stewart Sowman-Lund
Good cast, good laughs
My thoughts and feelings: Next Goal Wins was an enjoyable motion picture, navigating through some cultural and spiritual barriers with island humour. In a strange opening scene, Takia’s character explains how religious the island is… which is how most Pasifika move. The island pace and environment was enough to put me in a good mood (or maybe it was the wines) while the beautiful singing took me back to church. Something about a hymn vibrates your eardrums differently – IYKYK.
David Fane who plays Ace is my MVP. As super softly spoken coach, who’s just there for his people. We all need an Ace in our lives, someone to bring us back into the slow lane with some positivity and reminding us that whatever it is, it’s OK. Good cast, good laughs. / Tina Tiller
Next Goal Wins opens in cinemas on December 7, with previews beginning December 3.