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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Next Goal Wins: Review

Self-loathing football coach Thomas Rogen has spiraled down a personal and professional nader. After flaming out as a coach and disconnecting from his family, Rogen receives one last lifeline - an offer to coach the underdog American Samoa national team, a unit so dismal that they have never scored a goal. This challenge forces Rogen to evolve in unexpected ways in the sports comedy “Next Goal Wins.”

If you’ve seen a sports film before, you can probably guess where this journey is heading. Regardless, “Next Goal Wins” boasts an elevated pedigree compared to most athletic tales. Oscar-winning writer/director Taika Waitti has imprinted his signature quirk in several crowdpleasing favorites (“Thor: Ragnarok” and “Jojo Rabbit”), while lead actor Michael Fassbender has delivered towering performances across the past decade (Steve Jobs and Shame).

Somehow, “Next Goal Wins” assembles this winning team for a pitful losing affair. What should land as an open net goal sails wide right in a contrived and confounding missed opportunity.

“Next Goal Wins” extenuates Waitti’s worst attributes as an auteur. Despite his illustrious status, the filmmaker’s wistful whimsy can often be counter-balanced by mawkish sentimentality and groan-inducing gags. These tacky tendencies are growing more apparent as Waitti stretches himself thin across a deep roster of film and TV productions. For instance, “Thor Ragnarok” imbued a fresh and visually alluring spin on comic book campiness, but its long-awaited sequel, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” showcased the creative apathy one would expect from a student submitting a big project mere seconds before its deadline.

With “Next Goal Wins,” Waitti’s sensibilities plummet down a similar artistic rabbit hole. The film wears its feel-good sports movie mold as a badge of honor while attempting several self-aware kicks at dated traditions plaguing the genre, such as the well-charted underdog story and the problematic “white savior” complex. Adding introspection to well-worn narrative devices is a much-needed inclusion for the sports genre. Unfortunately, the film never meaningfully engages with these pretenses. Aside from a half-hearted quip here and there, “Next Goal Wins” mainly meanders down the same well-traveled road audiences have endured far too frequently.

The glaring lack of nuance only exacerbates the hackneyed sports movie conditions Waitti is trying to confront. This is most apparent through the depiction of Jaiyah Saelua, a transgender athlete who tries to break through the sport’s toxic traditions. An authentic, three-dimensional approach to Jaiyah would serve as a welcomed condemnation of the rigid “boys club” customs fueling some of our culture’s most troubling conditions. Instead, the film serves up a clunky Disney Channel-esque after-school special, screaming insincere insights that only hamper worthwhile observations. The entire American Samona team is burdened with similarly lackluster execution. Everything is defined by a singular and somewhat obnoxious character trait, leaving little room for viewers to engrain themselves in the film’s fascinating cultural landscape.

To be fair, distributors Disney/Searchlight Pictures also played a significant role in the film’s failures. Following several delays, “Next Goal Win’s” roughshod execution screams of a film butchered in the editing process. Storylines are pursued one minute before becoming a bizarre afterthought the next.

Thomas’s central journey is mainly left unexplored, and the whole endeavor never discovers a comfortable pace to dribble at. “Next Goal Wins’” malformed nature truly punctuates Disney’s incompetent handling of Searchlight Pictures. The studio was a once-proud pioneer for independent cinema (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Juno”), but now exists as a dilapidated husk of its former glory days.

“Next Goal Wins” isn’t a complete blowout. There are glimmers where Waitti’s quintessential quirks shine through, and Fassbender’s sheer gravitas does enhance his portrayal of embattled coach Thomas Rogen. Sadly, these periodic bright spots will only leave audiences wishing for a far more cohesive experience.


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