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Writer-director Taika Waititi scores his best movie with Next Goal Wins.

White Savior

A simple playbook
A simple playbook

This is the kind of movie and storytelling style and humor at which Waititi excels. Shoehorn his sensibilities into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it can be an uncomfortable fit, as witnessed by Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder. Entertaining, sure. But some of the humor went too far down an out-of-place, goofy path (and that’s not a reference to Mickey’s pal, either).

Here, Waititi is in his element, filling the screen with amiable, down-to-earth characters on par with Hunt for the Wilderpeople. No doubt, it all goes back to a person’s roots. Waititi’s native island country of New Zealand is home to a relatively small population of 5.2 million, which is still something on the order of 119 times larger than the population of American Samoa.

Next Goal Wins is based on a true story — and a documentary by the same name — but as Taika states in an opening cameo as a priest, it’s a true story told with a couple embellishments. It all revolves around the notorious American Samoa soccer team. They’re notorious because they sucked so bad; in the 2001 World Cup qualifiers, they were humiliated in a record-breaking 31-0 blowout. In 2011, the team played even worse.

Forget about winning a game. The team’s never even scored a single goal.

Enter Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a coach with anger management issues and a losing record of his own. He’s exiled to coach the American Samoa team, not necessarily to help the team win anything, but to help him get ahold of himself.

With that, Next Goal Wins starts to add on the layers. This is a great sports story (Cool Runnings comes to mind as a similarly quirky underdog tale). But it’s also about what it means to be a good person. It’s about stepping outside the friendly confines of life in America and learning about new — different — better — ways to live. Maybe, just maybe, there’s more to life than the Beautiful Game. But no matter what, when it stops being fun, what’s the point? And sometimes life deals losses that are much more debilitating than being on the low side of a score.

Cheese and Pepper

Waititi has a way of making fun with awkwardness and innocence instead of making fun of awkwardness and innocence. Here, it’s the laidback (small) island lifestyle that is showered in affection.

American Samoans are seen as good-natured, deeply religious and stress averse. As a US territory, their top exports are NFL players and tuna.

With that kind of economy, Next Goal Wins latches onto a running joke about everybody living on multiple side gigs. Teaching. Governing. Reporting. Policing. And, yeah, playing soccer. But soccer has its place amid their work, family and faith. Right there is a mix of humor and heart. Most importantly, the characters aren’t treated as caricatures; they are sympathetic and in many respects their lifestyle and outlook are to be envied.

Ultimately, that’s the key to Next Goal Win’s winning strategy. This movie has a huge heart. It’s hard to think of many movies in 2023 that exhibit this kind of simple, old-fashioned heart. They’re out there, but they typically fly under the radar in a movie business that’s still struggling to maintain its relevance in the post-pandemic world.

Tin Cans

Balancing the humor is a dual-thread dramatic component. Neither thread is straightforward, and that’s part of the movie’s own easygoing genius.

One involves Thomas and his relationship with his daughter. Given he’s separated from his wife and her mother, Gail (Elisabeth Moss), and he’s further isolated with poor cellular reception, his playing of his daughter’s voicemails is understandable. But it’s not what it seems; it’s much more meaningful.

And that thread — even as the team grapples with its lack of soccer skills — becomes entwined with the story of Jaiyah (Kaimana), a Fa’afafine. He might not be eligible to play in the qualifying round because he is becoming a she. It’s too easy to put Jaiyah in the gender identify conversation, but the Polynesian Fa’afafine and the Western concept of transgender are not identical.

As Thomas’ personal life, Jaiyah’s challenges and the team’s incompetence collide, the humor and the American Samoan culture provide the path back to center. As Tavita (Oscar Kightley), the American Samoa soccer association’s manager (and host of a no-budget Chamber of Commerce show called Who’s on the Plane?), explains it to Thomas, “Unhappiness is a curse.”

Such a simple thought so relevant in these turbulent times.

While this isn’t a Marvel movie, it is a Taika Waititi movie. Be sure to stay through the end credits for one last funny bit that’s worth the wait.