REVIEW: Taika Waititi’s latest directorial work, Next Goal Wins, didn’t exactly open to rave reviews overseas.
In the Guardian, Waititi’s latest project was described as a, “lacklustre fact-based string-puller”, while Vulture wrote “the film is … so sloppily assembled, and so lazy, that it frequently ends up feeling like an inadvertent parody of the underdog-sports genre it belongs to.”
Collider was just as bold, with this being their headline: “’Next Goal Wins’ Review: Extremely OK Sports Comedy Slightly Improved by Solid Taika Waititi Jokes”.
It’s easy to see why they didn’t get it – at its heart, Next Goal Wins is a classic NZ comedy.
With all the awkwardness of his early work Eagle vs Shark and the heartstring-pulling of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Next Goal Wins is built on the clunkiness of Kiwi humour – the way our jokes lie in the drawing out of the punchline, our tendency to get a bit corny now and then.
Though it follows the story of the infamous American Samoa football team, Next Goal Wins isn’t really about sports, but about heart, and the unexplainable drive to continue doing what feels like the most impossible thing in your life.
For those who may end up confused like this here reviewer, let’s clear things up early: the film is about the team behind the infamous 31-0 loss to the Socceroos in 2001, but not the match itself.
We join the American Samoa soccer team as they’re gearing up to take on Tonga in the 2011 qualifiers – they haven’t scored a single goal since that infamoys match, but with the arrival of (albeit disgraced) European football coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), things start to look hopeful.
Oscar Kightley as Tavita and David Fane as Ace are the scene stealers of this film, able to upstage the two-time Academy Award-nominated Fassbender and make it look like a walk in the park.
However, the film’s most compelling character – though tempting to say Tavita, because Kightley is just so damn good at comedy – is Jaiyah (played by Kaimana), who is fa’afafine.
Jaiyah’s identity is just a fact of life for the men on the football team, and they’re confused that Rongen would see something wrong with this.
She contends with transphobia and endless aggression from Rongen, but she has faith in the game and herself. It’s this faith that propels all the characters – why else would they be in such a notorious team?
There’s one scene very reminiscent of Boy, in which the team carry their passed out coach into the ocean. Shot from a bird’s eye view, a gorgeous beach serving as the background, there’s something that flows within the water that binds them altogether, like a baptism.
Though parts of the dialogue felt clunky, making conversations between characters awkward, you had to wonder: isn’t this just how Kiwis communicate?
And, most likely, those reviewers overseas didn’t have the joy of witnessing the film at its NZ screening in New Market, attended by family members of the cast.
In the front row, little girls giggled and pointed with pride when they saw Fane and Kightley on the big screen, and gave big cheers for their names during the credits.
Will Next Goal Wins go down as one of Waititi’s greats? It probably won’t break the top three, but he was able to put Pasifika talent into the mainstream, highlight the island way of life, and work with some icons of NZ’s screen.
Maybe it’s not about the film, but the filmmaking – or, the love of the game.