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TIFF Review: ‘Next Goal Wins’ is an Entertaining Sports Story Seen Through Taika Waititi’s Idiosyncratic Comedy Lens

The cast of NEXT GOAL WINS. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

To some degree, regardless of what film he makes, you know what you’re getting with a new Taika Waititi project. Now, I’ve enjoyed all of his movies, and Next Goal Wins is no exception, but this time around, it does feel like his style is propping up an otherwise fairly ordinary work. We get more laughs than we would from another filmmaker, as well as some interesting little moments, but this is a sports story, through and through. It’s well done, though I do wonder if its status a major world premiere here at the Toronto International Film Festival will set expectations that it can’t live up to.

Next Goal Wins is a crowdpleaser and deeply amusing. The thing is, it isn’t more than that, which is okay, but potentially not what some will be expecting. There’s heart and humor in abundance, just in service of the sort of story you’ve seen done many times before. Has Waititi ever done it? No, and it shows in his sensibilities coming through. Just don’t go in with notions of something that it’s not.

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This is the story of the American Samoa soccer team, known for being infamously terrible. Notably, in a 2001 FIFA match they lost 31-0 to Australia. With the 2014 World Cup fast approaching, the team ends up with a new coach in Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who’s as down on his luck as the squad. Recruited to help turn their fate around, he’s reluctant, to say the least, to embrace their way of life. They’re as positive and sunny as he is bitter and unhappy.

Encouraged by Tavita (Oscar Kightley) to embrace the American Samoan way, Thomas does begin to bond with Jaiyah (Kaimana) the transgender heart and soul of the team. Slowly, he begins to soften, which will be part of what leads the team to becoming the underdog story they are today. It’s no secret what happened, but seeing it go down, with all the laughs, is admittedly a lot of fun.

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Michael Fassbender is having a good time being funny, that much is clear. Getting to sink his teeth into comedy, as well as being the butt of some of the jokes, definitely tickles him. It’s not on the level of his best work, but it’s among his most enjoyable. Fassbender’s enthusiasm really does shine through. Oscar Knightley gets some really funny moments, while Kaimana is where much of the emotion comes from. The supporting cast, in addition to Waititi himself, includes Will Arnett, Beulah Koale, Elisabeth Moss, and more.

Co-writer/director Taika Waititi, working with Iain Morris, consistently seeks to make you smile here. It’s hard not to keep waiting for the unique turn with the material that never happens, but it does appear to be Waititi’s intent. At the same time, he does have great control over the potentially cliched sports moments. When you’re meant to cheer, trust me when I say that you will cheer. The film flows very well and doesn’t overstay its welcome, so there’s no chance of boredom setting in, even with the familiar territory being navigated.

Next Goal Wins works very well, provided that you meet it on its own terms. If you go in looking for an Oscar contender like Jojo Rabbit, you might wonder if this is all that there is. However, if you see this as something closer to Thor: Ragnarok, you’ll be quite pleased. I had a good time with this flick here at TIFF. When it hits theaters, you most likely will too.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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