The small island of American Samoa holds an unpleasant record: With 31 to 0, the national team of the US foreign territory suffered the heaviest defeat in an official football competition against Australia.
Inspired by the true story, "Jojo Rabbit" director Taika Waititi tells in his new, pleasant comedy "Next Goal Wins" how the constantly losing team still manages to qualify for the World Cup. All hope rests on a choleric coach from the USA, whose role is taken over by Michael Fassbender after a long break from the screen.
When the new trainer Thomas Rongen arrives on the island in the South Pacific, he not only brings a broken suitcase with him, but also a series of personal problems. These Waititi's colorful feel-good strips are occasionally peppered with dramatic moments. The script he co-wrote is based on the 2014 documentary film of the same name.
Not necessarily in shape
The team Rongen faces is far from a professional football team. The players regularly shoot past the goal and quickly get out of breath. This provides plenty of material for funny scenes. Appropriately, the individual characters are often portrayed in an exaggerated manner, which makes them appear less authentic.
"One goal" is the group's modest goal for World Cup qualification. The quirky, over-optimistic president of the Football Association - played by Oscar Kightley - repeats it like a mantra, especially to the newcomer from the USA. After the first training session, he no longer feels like doing the job. Rongen often shouts angrily and almost always has a paper cup in his hand into which he pours bottles of hard liquor.
New territory for Fassbender
It is noticeable that Fassbender is not your typical comedy actor. The films before his several-year break from the screen - during which the 46-year-old, by the way, worked as a racing driver - are rather dark. His second new production, "The Killer", is also not an easy action thriller. In his leading role in "Next Goal Wins", the German-born Irishman sometimes seems too serious - even if his character actually has a sad family history carries.
We hardly learn anything about most of the players on his team, nor about their relationships with each other. Here the film focuses on Jaiyah, the defensive player who was born biologically male but lives as a woman. In American Samoa culture, this gender is called "Fa'afafine" and is fully accepted in society. The role is played by Kaimana, who delivers a remarkable performance. It's nice how a larger film production brings the culture of the small island into the audience's awareness.
Another face that viewers see more often is that of Elisabeth Moss ("The Handmaid's Tale"), who plays Rongen's ex-wife. Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”) is also there, taking on a role originally intended for Armie Hammer. The US actor had left a number of projects due to allegations of abuse. Last June, however, prosecutors in Los Angeles announced that they would not file charges against him due to lack of evidence.
“Next Goal Wins” is hardly about football itself. In a trailer for the comedy, director Waititi himself says: "I went into it without knowing anything about football. And by the end of the film I knew even less."
The gags are simple and often seem simply strung together, but they definitely elicit a laugh or a smile from the audience. "Next Goal Wins" is very entertaining, but also remains superficial. Nevertheless, at the end you are rooting for the football team to see whether they will actually get the goal they were longing for - because Waititi takes the artistic freedom not to retell the true story down to the smallest detail.
Next Goal Wins, USA 2023, 105 min., FSK from 0/o.A. years, by Taika Waititi, with Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley