Home EVENTS The Affectionate, But Half-Hearted Faith of ‘Next Goal Wins’

The Affectionate, But Half-Hearted Faith of ‘Next Goal Wins’

The Affectionate, But Half-Hearted Faith of ‘Next Goal Wins’


(REVIEW) Sometimes a movie knows how to score, but “Next Goal Wins” doesn’t necessarily achieve that feat. 

The movie tells the true story (previously told by the documentary by the same name) of the American Samoan national soccer team’s inglorious and historic losing streak that was finally turned around when disgraced coach Thomas Rongen (played by Michael Fassbender) came on board to help turn the team around. 

This true-life story captured the hearts of the world, largely because it really felt like a classic sports movie — and so it was inevitable that someone would actually try to turn it into such. That person was Taika Waititi, a director who has had his own surprising downward spiral. After being the toast of Hollywood with “What We Do In The Shadows,” “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” Waititi followed that up with the divisive Oscar-hopeful, anti-hate satire “Jojo Rabbit” and the panned “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

READ: How You Can Help Support Religion Unplugged

Like Rongen, Waititi is doing a smaller project, one might expect hoping that this will help turn things around. Unfortunately, it may be all in vain. That’s because “Next Goal Wins” hits all the beats you want for a feel-good sports romp — and has a surprisingly affectionate treatment of faith — but ultimately doesn’t commit to any particular take on the story, which leads to it feeling surprisingly shallow and half-hearted.

“Next Goal Wins” is an odd movie that feels both sweet and strangely half-hearted. The movie largely sleepwalks through the “underdog sports movie coach” formula, with the disgraced coach having to take on a losing team to victory. The movie doesn’t seem to have a great deal of passion or commitment toward these scenes or story beats, but it does check all the boxes successfully regarding the bare-minimum, feel-good juice you’re looking for.  

Typically, Waititi does this in his movies with a series of sincere moments but makes up for it by leaning insanely with his subversive, absurd humor. And yet, the humor here is also surprisingly restrained. This leads to a movie that feels (in some ways) refreshingly more relaxed than a normal Waititi film but also one with less energy or identity. 

There is also a surprising lack of character development or depth for a typical sports-coach movie. These types of films usually, like “Hoosiers,” focus the character development on the coach. In this movie, Rongen’s character is so paper-thin and inconsistent that you really feel the lack of development of the supporting cast.

The movie flirts with focusing more on the American Samoans, like team manager Tavita (played by Oscar Knightly). When the movie takes this route, it really works, humorously focusing on the townspeople trying to coax the reluctant coach into helping them. But it drops that take quickly and never develops any of the locals in a protagonist role beyond caricatures. This is perplexing for a director who’s talked a lot about how important Samoan representation is to him.

Faith plays a surprisingly large and respectful role in “Next Goal Wins” – even if it’s never developed beyond surface level. American Samoa is — as the movie says — deeply religious and majority Christian, being that a whopping 98% identify that way.

In the film, Waititi plays a priest who opens the story and reprises his role later in the movie. The American Samoan Natives’ faith is shown to be a regular part of their lives, with prayers, hymns and a commitment to going to church on Sundays instead of playing games — all of which follow the trope of frustrating Rongen before he comes to accept it and them. Typically, it is the set up for a joke, but usually with affection and not meant to disparage the religion.

The affection doesn’t exactly elicit one of genuine respect for the beliefs themselves, which are never really developed or expounded upon, but of affection for the people who hold them. When Tavita justifies why the nonreligious Rongen should respect their faith, he argues that it’s part of their culture and the way they do things.

On the one hand, it’s really nice to see faith — and Christianity in this case – treated in such an affectionate, respectful way in a secular American movie. And there’s something sweet about a big-time director making funny moments about the religious culture of a group he identifies with at least somewhat without it seeming mean-spirited. And yet, it does still reinforce the paternalistic attitude toward non-White religious communities that their religious beliefs should be reduced to “culture” rather than wrestled with as a belief system that can be true, false or something in between.

One of the most interesting aspects of the religious life in American Samoa that the movie brings up, which could also have been interesting to explore, is its relationship with transgenderism. The movie heavily emphasizes the friendship between Rongen and the real-life team’s transgender player Jaiyah.

The movie makes the point that American Samoan culture is more accepting of transgenderism than other cultures. This is interesting because in our American context, the people least likely to accept transgenderism are religious people. And yet, if the movie is to be believed, American Samoans are far more religious than Americans but also far more accepting of transgenderism than even secular Americans are. Is a deep exploration of that issue necessary in such a movie? No, but it would have been interesting if it had been explored more deeply. 

This surface-level treatment is a fairly consistent feature of Waititi’s movies. From joking about genocide in the Thor franchise to laughing through the Holocaust in “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi’s movies don’t seem to be able to reach for depth the way other filmmakers can in the midst of jokes. James Gunn this year managed to explore both faith and human depth in “Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 3” while still having side-splitting humor. So did this year’s amazing faith-based film “On A Wing And A Prayer.” In the same way that religion dies on the vine when it’s not treated seriously, the drama of Waititi’s movies suffer when he can’t find depth in the faith of the American Samoans as they have in God.

For those looking for a feel-good sports underdog movie that hits all the right beats with some self-aware humor thrown in, “Next Goal Wins” is the movie for you. But as a fan of Waititi’s work, I will be praying that he finds faith in something that reignites a depth that I know he’s capable of.


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