There are good sports movies. There are bad sports movies. And then there are good sports movies about bad sportspeople. Next Goal Wins, the latest non-Asgardian offering from Taika Waititi, aims to be in this last sub-genre. The story, of the historically crap American Samoa football team in their quest to be marginally less crap, follows in the fumbling footsteps of the likes of Cool Runnings and Eddie The Eagle.
Adapted from the 2014 documentary of the same name and based on real events (“with a couple of embellishments”, the film notes), it is the ultimate underdog story, and exactly the kind of quirky material that Waititi has always gravitated towards, too: sweet, dry comedy that celebrates, and is defined by, Polynesian culture.
American Samoa is a ripe setting for this sort of thing. It’s small-town, personified: an island nation with a blanket 20mph speed limit and a community so insular that everyone has second or third jobs. Some of the film’s best moments come when Waititi and Iain Morris’ script affectionately ribs its environs — especially when football admin Tavita (a deadpan Oscar Kightley) is on screen, born of the same management school as Murray from Flight Of The Conchords.
There are issues. But there is still something to be said for the comforts of this sub-genre.
It is almost a shame, then, that the focus is not entirely on this tight-knit culture, but instead the “white saviour” (as one character pre-emptively puts it) who visits it. Michael Fassbender, in a performance almost as icy as his turn in The Killer, is — by design — not an especially likeable lead. His reluctant football coach is a ball of uncontained rage, essentially possessing all of the pitchside etiquette of Sir Alex Ferguson but none of his managerial nous.
His gradual, inevitable journey from unwanted outsider to transformative leader feels unearned, coming together largely thanks to a montage (another time-honoured sports-movie staple). That feeling is compounded by a sub-plot involving Jaiyah (Kaimana), a trans player who Thomas repeatedly misgenders and deadnames in the film’s most unpleasant moments. There are ways of depicting a disrespectful character without the film itself feeling disrespectful. It’s not clear that bar is cleared here.
So, there are issues. Waititi’s predilection for whimsy can only take him so far. Compared to the carefully crafted high of Boy or Hunt For The Wilderpeople, this errs on the side of careless. But there is still something to be said for the comforts of this sub-genre — the simple but potent idea that losing together is better than losing alone. There is a genuine goosebumps moment when the team’s haka finally comes together, and you can probably guess how it all ends. Sometimes being bad at sports can be good.