'Next Goal Wins' Review
September 11, 2023
Next Goal Wins premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it in theaters on November 17.
Based on the overwhelming reactions at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins should be a shoo-in for the People’s Choice Award or at least a spot in one of the Runner’s Up positions. It felt as if there was a real soccer crowd in that auditorium, as each goal was met with rapturous applause and the boos reigned down after each mention of the opposing team. That immediate passion is a product of Waititi’s unmatched skill at creating sympathy for the underdog, something TIFF audiences are familiar with and have rewarded in the past (2019’s Jojo Rabbit was awarded the People’s Choice Award, ultimately resulting in an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay).
The only thing the American Somoan soccer team is known for is being the biggest loser in the world. They lost 31-0 in a 2001 World Cup qualifying match against Australia and had still not scored a single goal in all the games they’ve ever played. Fortunately for them, coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is on the job market after being fired by the US national team. With no other options, Rongen reluctantly takes the position, setting up a battle between a man who gives up on everything and a team that gives up (even though they probably should).
Shot in 2019, it’s a minor miracle that Next Goal Wins is finally seeing the light of day. During the post-screening Q&A, Waititi said he found the silver lining during the endless delays, as it allowed him to have more than enough time to perfect the editing. It paid off, with Waititi’s signature punchlines being delivered with precision. And the soccer matches have great energy to them, pulling you into the drama.
Nothing is surprising about the plot, it’s just your average sports drama about an underdog team. Waititi embraces that concept rather than running away from it. Many of the jokes play off the clichés, such as Rongen giving the rousing pre-game locker room speech, only for one of the players to notice that he’s just ripping off the one Al Pacino gave in Any Given Sunday. The style and substance of these jokes never really change, meaning they get a little tiring the longer the film goes on. But even if their effect is progressively diluted, it’s still pretty funny throughout.
Michael Fassbender hasn’t been in a film since 2019. Dark Phoenix was in theaters at the same time this was filming. He hasn’t lost a step during that hiatus, delivering the comedy he never gets to do, along with sprinkles of the grizzled drama we’ve come to know him for. Oscar Knightley often steals the show as the overly optimistic soccer federation chief, and Kaimana brings great emotion to her role as Jaiyah, the first openly non-binary and transgender international soccer player. It is a shame that Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris don’t invest enough in her story, leaving her importance a distant second to Rongen’s despite their similar screen presence.
Next Goal Wins makes fans out of all of us, both thanks to Waititi’s skill and the simple goal it strives for. It’s effortlessly watchable, uncontroversial, and full of good vibes, making it one of the best options for the family this year.