Sports fans always love themselves a good underdog story. What fun is it for the New York Yankees to always win the World Series? The scrappy, “nobody expected us to be here” runs gain a massive outpouring from the public. That, too, extends to the cinema realm. Everybody has a memory of The Mighty Ducks, The Big Green, Little Giants, and The Bad News Bears. Of course, you do, and Taika Waititi is conscious of that nostalgic affinity to those films. It’s exactly what he’s going for with Next Goal Wins, a film based on the 2014 documentary.
Instead of a band of kids or teenagers who were picked last to form a team to do the impossible, we’re dealing with a real story. In 2001, the American Samoa soccer team suffered a 31-0 defeat to Australia, the worst loss in FIFA history. It’s something the team can’t shake and has acted as a black cloud over the program for years to come. It’s not like they want to win a game; they want to score a goal. There’s a base for a level of wholesomeness regarding the simplicity of that mission. But of course, as the team is down, they need someone to come and lift the program from its proverbial loser stigma.
Enter Thomas Rongen – a hot-headed manager at the end of his rope and holding on to a plethora of issues. He’s recently divorced, and his wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) is in a relationship with someone he has to answer to in the soccer federation, Alex (Will Arnett). After losing another gig, they and a panel feel that Thomas could use a little getaway to work on himself. That sends him on a collision course with the American Samoa soccer team. You can deduce much of what occurs just from knowing how these films play out. Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris introduce a subplot involving Thomas’s daughter and a tragic accident that claimed her life to somewhat explain his curmudgeonliness.
Voicemails of her voice are played throughout Next Goal Wins to garner sympathy, but when his character is in action, that quickly gets wiped out. Then, the story goes through a parade of commonplace tropes in films of this makeup. The coach tears down the foundation from the ground up to elect a more challenging training regiment. He then gets angry because his players can’t seem to live up to his standards and contemplates quitting often. Next Goal Wins seeks to establish other personalities, like the president of the team, Ace (David Fane), who tries to get Thomas to look on the bright side and be open to Samoan culture and shamed goalkeeper Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), looking for a second chance to redeem himself.
One relationship is elevated above all and doesn’t work in the context it is intended to. Jaiyah Saelua’s real story is incredibly inspiring as she is the first transgender and fa’afafine woman to play in a FIFA qualifying match. That alone is something the film could have built off of in a way that didn’t feel dated. Kaimana plays this part with joy and grace, but the film Immediately puts Thomas and Jaiyah at odds in a contentious, off-putting way. During one soccer practice, Thomas deadnames her and is downright disrespectful. Jaiyah follows that with a punch that sends Thomas to the ground (justifiably).
But then Next Goal Wins places the umbrage of apology on Jaiyah’s shoulders. A discussion with grade school questions about fa’afafine identifying people withstanding, Jaiyah’s character is a vehicle of redemption for Thomas that doesn’t feel earned and underscores much of the surface-level development many characters have throughout the film. It’s a shame because when Next Goal Wins wants to, abundant energy radiates off the people the narrative should focus on – as they sift through the many Karate Kid references. The main struggles of the man supposed to lead his team to glory ultimately drag down any of the “we did it” motion this film tries to earn.