An early scene in Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins portrays a lackluster Siva Tau before a soccer game, symbolizing the story of the world’s worst team and their eventual turnaround under a reluctant new coach. However, Next Goal Wins struggles to gain momentum or evoke passion. It falls flat in delivering on its comedic and dramatic aspirations, leaving the audience wanting more.
Next Goal Wins is a sports dramedy based on the 2014 documentary of the same name. Directed by Waititi, the film was shot in 2019 but faced delays due to the production reshoots caused by the public scandal involving former co-star Armie Hammer. Michael Fassbender takes on the role of Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen, who reluctantly becomes a part of the American Samoan team and culture on their journey to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
However, the film fails to develop the characters of Rongen or the players, making them seem interchangeable. The exception is the portrayal of star center back Jaiyah Saelua, played by nonbinary actor Kaimana. Jaiyah’s faʻafafine identity as a “third gender” person in Samoan culture, and the challenges they face, are overshadowed and simplified for the sake of advancing the plot. This oversimplification becomes a missed opportunity for deeper exploration.
Next Goal Wins lacks visual flair and atmosphere. The predominantly dull and uninspiring natural lighting further contributes to its lackluster appearance. The film struggles to strike a balance between sincerity and snark, resulting in an awkward tonal middle ground. It merges New Zealand comedy’s grandeur deflation with American underdog movie tropes without successfully reconciling the contrast.
The film’s attempt at injecting comedy with gravitas often falls flat. Moments that are meant to be humorous end up feeling forced and cringe-worthy. The lack of genuine concern for the sport at the center of the story further contributes to the film’s shortcomings. As a result, it feels increasingly devoid of stakes and fails to engage the audience.
There are fleeting moments of liveliness in Next Goal Wins, but they do not involve Rongen or the American Samoan team. Instead, these moments occur when the film introduces the villainous Tongan national squad. The casting of these characters as bullies with a serpentine appearance adds an element of humor. Next Goal Wins briefly hints at finding its rhythm through sketch-comedy stylings but quickly retreats, relying once again on excessive pop-culture references.