TIFF REVIEW – ‘Next Goal Wins’ is heartfelt but flawed and messy

After an Oscar win for Jojo Rabbit and another dalliance with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Taika Waititi is back with a film that attempts to capture the essence of a feel-good sports drama but ultimately falls short of its goal. Despite the potential for a compelling narrative, the heartfelt but flawed and messy Next Goal Wins is marred by weak character development, predictable storytelling, and a lack of emotional depth. Based on the true story of the American Samoa soccer team, who are infamous for suffering the worst defeat in international football history, the film aims to showcase their journey towards redemption. Unfortunately, it struggles to do justice to this inspirational tale.

The film follows Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) as he takes on the challenging task of transforming the American Samoa soccer team from perennial losers to competitive contenders. Fassbender’s performance is competent but uninspired. His portrayal of Rongen lacks the charisma and depth necessary to make the character truly engaging. The script offers little in the way of backstory or motivation, leaving Fassbender to navigate a role that feels underdeveloped and one-dimensional.

One of the film’s biggest shortcomings is its handling of the team members. While the real-life players’ stories are rich with potential, the film barely scratches the surface of their personal journeys. The characters are introduced but not sufficiently explored, resulting in a team that feels more like a collection of stereotypes than fully realized individuals. This lack of character development undermines the emotional impact of their journey, making it difficult for the audience to invest in their struggles and triumphs.

The narrative structure of Next Goal Wins is disappointingly formulaic. The film adheres to a predictable underdog sports movie template, hitting all the expected beats without offering anything new or surprising. From the initial introduction of the team’s woes to the inevitable training montage and the climactic final match, the plot unfolds exactly as one would expect. This predictability robs the film of tension and excitement, making it feel more like a by-the-numbers retelling than a fresh and engaging story.

Taika Waititi, known for his unique and quirky directorial style, seems to be playing it safe here. The film lacks the distinctive humour and creative flair that have become his trademarks. While there are moments of levity, they often feel forced and out of place, detracting from the overall tone of the film. Waititi’s direction is competent but uninspired, failing to elevate the material beyond its conventional trappings.

The supporting cast, including Elisabeth Moss as Rongen’s ex-wife and Oscar Kightley as the team’s assistant coach, deliver performances that are adequate but unmemorable. The film misses opportunities to delve deeper into these characters’ relationships with Rongen and the team, resulting in interactions that feel superficial and lacking in emotional resonance. The chemistry between the cast members is passable but never quite reaches the level of genuine camaraderie and connection that is crucial for a story of this nature.

Another area where Next Goal Wins falters is in its depiction of the cultural context. The film touches on aspects of Samoan culture and the challenges faced by the team, but these elements are never fully integrated into the narrative. Instead, they often come across as superficial nods rather than meaningful explorations. This lack of cultural depth not only shortchanges the story but also misses an opportunity to provide a richer, more immersive experience for the audience.

The film’s pacing is uneven, with certain sections dragging while others feel rushed. The training sequences, in particular, lack the energy and excitement needed to convey the team’s gradual improvement and growing sense of cohesion. The final match, which should be the emotional and narrative climax of the film, is undermined by its predictability and lack of dramatic tension. As a result, the payoff feels unearned and anticlimactic.

One of the most disappointing aspects of Next Goal Wins is its failure to capture the emotional core of the story. The real-life journey of the American Samoa soccer team is one of resilience, perseverance, and the triumph of the human spirit. However, the film struggles to convey these themes in a meaningful way. The emotional beats often feel forced and manipulative, rather than genuine and earned. This lack of emotional authenticity prevents the film from resonating on a deeper level. Fans of Waititi and sports dramas may find some enjoyment, but overall, Next Goal Wins fails to live up to its potential and stands as a rare misstep for Waititi.

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Will Arnett
Director: Taika Waititi
Producers: Jonathan Cavendish, Garrett Basch, Taika Waititi, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison
Screenplay: Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Cinematography: Lachlan Milne
Production Design: Ra Vincent
Costume Design: Miyako Bellizzi
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editor: Nicholas Monsour
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: 26th December 2023 (Australia)

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