The bar is lower than low: one goal, just one past the keeper, no more, no less. Such is the plight of the American Samoa national football team, which has become a global joke for losing 31-0 to Australia in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match. A foreign coach who arrives to prepare the players for the next World Cup finds that he has landed in Incompetence Central.
The previous coach has the genial manner of a holiday tour organiser. The players are too laidback to connect foot to ball, let along muster up the fighting spirit needed to win matches. The new coach threatens to quit ever so often but something holds him back – the belief in miracles that guides all feel-good underdog sports dramas, as it does this one.
Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins is based on actual incidents and a more serious-minded documentary of the same name. The movie has Waititi’s distinctive goofiness but also his tendency to let a great joke run on for too long. Waititi’s screenplay, written along with Iain Morris, lies somewhere between Shaolin Soccer and Cool Runnings, without the superhuman flourishes of the former and the focused plotting of the latter.
Michael Fassbender casts off his intense screen persona to winningly play Thomas Rogen, who is dispatched to American Samoa after a series of professional mishaps. Thomas’s sullen mood barely improves when he meets the players, which includes the non-binary Jaiyah (Kaimana).
Football federation chief Tavita (Oscar Kightley) is endlessly optimistic. Perhaps it’s the effect of the island’s natural beauty or the fact that Tavita holds down multiple jobs (including, hilariously, of the cameraman of a television show). Tavita knows that Thomas can work miracles, even if Thomas doesn’t yet.
The 104-minute film fully embraces its cliches, right down to its white saviour. Any attempts at seriousness – such as over Thomas’s initial response to Jaiyah – are strictly perfunctory.
It’s as though we are at a picnic with lovable revellers, hearty treats and silly games. The film’s look and feel is knowingly amateurish, the comedy organic and often very funny. The secondary characters are relatable too, even though only Tavita and Jaiyah gets some play. Thomas’s personal angst – also par for the course in a movie of this kind – is disposable.
Waititi’s reputation for organised mayhem holds Next Goal Wins in place until it’s time to actually score the goal. Despite dodgy football, the performances are spot-on, with Oscar Kightley’s Tavita acing every one of his scenes.
“Football is fun,” Jaiyah points out when Thomas is threatening to drop dead from the all-round mediocrity. Sure. On that count alone, the movie works very well, like a well-earned sundae after a rigorous workout. But to find out how the American Samoan team actually overcame their losing streak, you will need to dig out the documentary that inspired it.