‘Next Goal Wins’ Review: Taika Waititi Adds The Heart And Humor To Real Life Story Of Losing American Samoa Soccer Team’s Ultimate Vindication – Toronto Film Festival

Fall film festivals are usually where we look for the more serious awards-bait pictures, but occasionally, as with tonight’s rousing world premiere of Taikia Waititi’s long-gestating soccer comedy Next Goal Wins, you get a real commercial crowd pleaser.

That is exactly what Waititi has delivered in adapting the 2014 documentary of the same time by filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. Yes, this heartfelt movie fits right in with the well-overworked Hollywood sports movie formula — you know, the ragtag team that becomes triumphant against all odds. The triumph here wasn’t on a huge scale for the American Samoa men’s national team, which notoriously holds the record for the single-biggest loss in international football history when it lost a World Cup qualifier Australia 31-0 in 2001. The team remained at the bottom of the FIFA rankings until November 2011, when they finally got a goal, a victory itself, and beat Tonga 2-1 in a Oceania Football Confederation Cup qualifier.

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With a real-life story and a wonderfully likeable group of underdogs, how could this not be a major studio movie? In fact it has been made under Searchlight, the specialty label of Disney’s 20th Century subsidiary, and they have given Waititi (Oscar winner for his screenplay of the wonderful JoJo Rabbit as well as commercial but quirky movies like Thor: Ragnorok and indie gems like his breakthrough The Hunt for the Wilderpeople) the full opportunity to add his inimitable touches that separate it from the usual kind of playbook we see over and over in the genre. Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso did the same thing on its own level and achieved success by putting character ahead of the expected formula and found huge success. For the same reason, Next Goal Wins could be a nice hit for Searchlight, especially as a family attraction that isn’t animated. The Toronto Film Festival crowd was cheering like they were at a real match.

Michael Fassbender stars as coach Thomas Rongen, who was the real coach brought in, but this portrayal is said to be nothing like the actual Rongen, at least for the most part, as dramatic license was taken in creating the character in the script by Waititi and Iain Morris. He is a not-so-likeable, hot-tempered guy who gets demoted and sent to American Samoa to coach this bunch of “losers.” He is not happy, and to add to his misery his ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) now dates American Soccer Federation head Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett, who replaced Armie Hammer during 2021 reshoots).

Thomas reluctantly goes and doesn’t sense it quite yet, but his life and outlook are going to change dramatically as he gets to know these lovable players and the community that surrounds them. They are anything but losers, despite the numbers that would say otherwise. Chief among them is Tavita (Oscar Knightley), head of the Football Federation of American Samoa and the guy who becomes his right-hand in whipping the team into shape. He manages the steal the movie in many ways, a complete delight. There is also his enthusiastic and loving wife Ruth (a sweet Rachel House); Ace, the assistant coach (David Fane); Jaiyah (Kaimana), the first transgender athlete to ever compete in an FIFA match; Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), the hapless goalie; and the irrepressible Rambo (Semu Filipo), a big guy with a highly unusual style on the field, just to highlight a few.

RELATED: ‘Next Goal Wins’ Trailer: Michael Fassbender Coaches Win-Averse Samoan Soccer Team In Taika Waititi Comedy

From trying to turn the team into a cohesive whole, to actually getting into meaningful games, and finally of course the big finale where their fortunes change dramatically, we see Thomas also grow dramatically as the man who suffered a great personal tragedy two years earlier and now has found a new kind of family. Fassbender himself, usually a more serious type of actor, gets to show another side of his talent and adapts nicely, even with newly dyed blonde hair for the part. Moss and Arnett don’t have that much to do, as the spotlight is on the wonderful cast of newcomers and veteran actors from the Polynesian Triangle as it is known. Big shoutout to casting directors Mary Vernieu and Michelle Wade Byrd.

Ultimately, this is a film pretty true to the documentary, but one Waititi has infused with so much heart and his quirky sense of humor that it stands as a nice original on its own.

Producers are Waititi, Garrett Basch, Brett, Jamison and Jonathan Cavendish, who originally developed the project with Andy Serkis, his partner in Imaginarium who serves as an executive producer.

Title: Next Goal Wins
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Release date: November 17, 2023
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriters: Taika Waititi and Iain Morris
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Knightley, Kaimana, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss, Uli Latukefu, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Koale
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 43 min

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