TIFF 2023: Movie Review — “Next Goal Wins”

Next Goal Wins is a funny and poignant film, that delivers a unique spin on a true-life tale from director Taika Waititi. Viewers will get caught up in American Samoa’s Football club as they attempt to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

When Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) arrives on the island as the new coach, a job he is forced to take, the island life and Rongen must coalesce as one family to succeed. Rongen may have the talent to teach this hapless group of athletes, but it won’t be easy. The tiny island nation is looking for hope, but it will take healing for the team and Rongen to have any chance of success.

Fassbender makes Rongen unique because, while we may see the stereotypical coaching traits come out, we mostly see Rongen making it up or stealing inspirational quotes from movies while trying to motivate the team. Rongen is not a people person, and Fassbender’s performance for most of the film locks up the pain and hurt that Rongen has endured. When Fassbender gets to show a real emotional arc in his performance near the end is when the team shines.

The heart of the story and the essence of the film are the players on the team. Films can be successful and beloved for a variety of reasons. Next Goal Wins is hilarious because of this unique team, and the actors who help bring to life what happened in American Samoa.

For as much as the audience will love the comedic sarcastic wit of Michael Fassbender, the star making performance is from Kaimana, who plays Jaiyah, a team member who is also part of the fa’afafine community. Kaimana owns the screen when front and center, and the audience will find Jaiyah’s story to be a rollercoaster ride of emotion.

We root for Jaiyah and the audience falls in love with Jaiyah because Kaimana brings so much warmth and emotion to the role, that audiences will be bowled over by the performance. Kaimana’s work is a standout and should be remembered at awards season.

Oscar Kightley as Tavita is the strong supportive backbone to the story. As president of the football federation in American Samoa, he has prayed for a miracle and Thomas Rongen seems to be the only option. Tavita has complete faith in Rongen, and is only asking for one goal, which Kightley plays masterfully in one scene where he repeats the one goal statement, as he slowly walks away backwards from Rongen at a restaurant. Oscar Kightley plays much for laughs, but his fatherly role to the team, and the supportive friend to Rongen, will make anyone wish they had a Tavita in their life.

The outcome of the story can be easily found online. After all, this is a true story. Master storytellers and filmmakers will find a way to make a true-life story compelling even though you might know the ending. Taika Waititi lets the culture, the faith, and the people of American Samoa be the narrative to the events. This style helps ensure the audience will be hooked from the first second of the film until the last.

Rongen comes to the island lost, and ultimately finds himself. The audience comes to American Samoa not knowing anything about the country, the people, or for many, the real story of the football team. Through Waititi’s irreverent humor, and off-balance approach to filmmaking, he snares the audience with a desire to learn more.

From the opening moments when the audience meets Waititi in the form of a local priest, one knows that this will be a story of joy, even if the ingredients to the recipe might be a little hard to swallow at first.

Layering the story from the onset with American Samoa’s disastrous loss to Australia via a 31-0 obliteration tells everyone that this football team is awful. This team has heart but is filled with people who have the worst luck and lack serious skill. At the outset we may see this movie as a story about losers, who despite the fact they have lost so spectacularly, their love of the game keeps them coming back. It is a story of hope, redemption, and faith, rooted in athletes and a country’s love of the game.

One cannot hope for a more powerful inspirational tale than Next Goal Wins. There are many times when laughter will fill the air as the audience watches the failures of this football team. When the qualifying game against Tonga happens, the audience will hold their breath each minute of the game, for everyone knows the stakes are high, one cannot help but hope for victory.

Next Goals Wins is filled with talent on screen and behind the camera and will certainly make many rounds on the awards circuit. I predict Mr. Waititi will have another Oscar to add to the mantle.

Bill Gowsell
Bill Gowsell has loved all things Disney since his first family trip to Walt Disney World in 1984. Since he began writing for Laughing Place in 2014, Bill has specialized in covering the Rick Riordan literary universe, a retrospective of the Touchstone Pictures movie library, and a variety of other Disney related topics. When he is not spending time with his family, Bill can be found at the bottom of a lake . . . scuba diving