By Lynn Venhaus
Think a second tier “Ted Lasso” meets a “Cool Runnings” vibe in this rough-around-the-edges underdog sports comedy-drama that is based on a true story.
The now infamous American Samoa soccer team, known for a historically brutal 2001 FIFA match they lost 31-0 to Australia, seeks redemption — and a goal — in 2014 or they’ll be booted out of the football federation.
Aimed at the heart with emphasis on quirky, director and co-writer Taika Waititi focuses on the likability of the Pacific Islanders involved with the soccer team, and the colorful inhabitants of American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific Ocean.
It’s a mixed result. Waititi and co-screenwriter Aian Morris follow the template of the 2014 documentary of the same name, but naturally embellished for a narrative.
Set in 2014, many people still have not gotten over the 2001 humiliation and are doubtful about the next World Cup qualifying match as the team hasn’t scored a goal since. Football Federation President Tavita, wonderfully played by charmer Oscar Kightley, is determined to get the team across that hurdle, so he hires a hothead Dutch-born coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who has been fired for egregious behavior, four weeks away from the game.
Naturally, he’s a fish out of water – faced with the ultimatum to leave or take the American Samoan job. His surly demeanor is at odds with the happy-go-lucky islanders, and does he even like soccer? He drinks too much, yells too much, and cares far too little.
Following the familiar beats of goodness triumphing over meanness, like every true-story sports movie, “Next Goal Wins” is a crowd-pleaser but average paint-by-numbers movie.
New Zealander Waititi is known for his offbeat work in “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” won an Oscar for “JoJo Rabbit,” and has directed a couple mega budget “Thor” movies.
Most surprising is seeing the intense Michael Fassbender cast as the down-on-his-luck maverick coach Thomas Rongen, who is tasked with turning the world’s worst soccer team around as World Cup Qualifiers approach. American Samoa is ranked last, and if they do not win, will be booted.
Fassbender, two-time Oscar nominee for “Steve Jobs” and “12 Years a Slave,” is known for serious roles. He is an odd choice, but this rage-aholic coach is a high-strung guy, so playing cantankerous, screaming so much his veins stand out, is within his specific set of skills.
The character is designed to be redeemed, of course, and he gets his big speech, although throws a couple curves in, to explain some of his behavior. Fassbender is never going to be warm and fuzzy, or funny, for that matter, but you do root for him to get out of his own way.
In the spirit of “The Mighty Ducks” and “Bad News Bears,” the team players espouse the ‘old college try’ philosophy, and fit the kooky mold Waititi was going for, along with providing a strong sense of community.
The likable Jaiyah, a transgender player, portrayed by a winsome Kaimana, is horribly disrespected by Rongen, and that relationship development is a focus of the plot, but the others aren’t given much to work with – Beulah Koale as Tavita’s son, Semu Filipo as police officer Rambo, and Uli Latukefu as the former goalie Nicky Salapu stand out.
Armani, the kid helping Rongen, is another source of comic relief, and Waititi uses the young actor Armani Makaiwa wisely.
In supporting roles are Elisabeth Moss as Rongen’s divorce-headed wife, Will Arnett, who replaced Armie Hammer, as football federation board’s Alex Magnussen, and Rachel House as Tavita’s wife Ruth.
Showcasing the natural beauty of the island makes for a pleasant backdrop, with beaches, reefs and stunning cliff outlooks. And the characters’ relaxed way of life adds to the authentic depiction.
If you’re looking for heartwarming, you can find it here. However, if you are seeking a rousing underdog sports film that’s a cut above the usual, seek out the Oscar-winning documentary “Undefeated.”
“Next Goal Wins” is a 2023 Sports Comedy directed by Taika Waititi and starring Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Will Arnett, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, and David Fane. It’s rated: PG-13 for some strong language and crude material and runs 1 hour, 43 minutes. It opens in theatres Nov. 17. Lynn’s Grade: C.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.