When the pandemic hit, a modest soccer saga like “Ted Lasso” could stream its polished eccentricity and stimulating kindness into our homes and convince us all that someday we’d be striking life’s balls into the back of the net again. But now, when even that fictional coach has vacated the pitch, in order for a bad-team-makes-good tale to be worth our time, we need something significantly better than the stale, choppy, yuk-challenged positivity that Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” meagerly sells.
What’s especially weird is that “Next Goal Wins,” unlike “Ted Lasso,” is actually based on an authentic underdog story: how the world’s worst national soccer team — from the pocket-sized island of American Samoa — sought to bounce back from this global sport’s most humiliating international defeat, a 31-0 pulverizing by Australia in 2001. Looking to outside help to secure the seemingly achievable uplift of scoring just a single goal in their next chance at qualifying for the World Cup, the ragtag team brought in Dutch-born veteran coach Thomas Rongen to orchestrate a turnaround. And guess what happened? (If you’ve seen the same-named 2014 documentary about this story, you already know. But you know anyway.)
Still, when real life hands you formula, you should still check the label before warming up the bottle and feeding it to an audience. Here, the problems start with ingredient number one: the white-savior narrative. Just because Waikiki and co-screenwriter Iain Morris have an onscreen character give voice to that problematic trope early on doesn’t make it any less awkward to watch such an outdated cliche get trotted out again, as bearded, sallow, divorced and drinking Rongen (Michael Fassbender) shows up to instill discipline in his carefree charges.
Then there’s the excessive cultural cuteness. I’ve never been to American Samoa, but there is surely more to this scenic haven and its proud folk than these provincial jokes Waititi prefers to three-dimensional people. That’s a shame because Oscar Kightley, as American Samoa’s soccer federation head, and David Fane, as a burly, kindhearted assistant coach too soft to be inspiring, are charismatic presences, even if they are reduced to punchlines. We’re a far cry from the atmospheric, personalized charm that distinguished the New Zealand filmmaker’s rise to prominence in films like “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”
Additives to “Next Goal Wins” include enriched representational messaging, handled in an insensitive way. Non-binary performer Kaimana, as pioneering fa’afafine athlete Jaiyah — one of the team’s more formidable members, but at the time not fully transitioned — gives the film its most appealing character, providing enough star wattage and emotional nuance to make up for the fact that she’s being asked to carry the bulk of the film’s sincerity. (“Fa’afafine” is Samoans’ umbrella term for a class of identity they consider a third gender.) Despite your eye gravitating toward Kaimana for some semblance of honest feeling, Waititi can’t help but make even this portrayal of an icon of trans rights feel like lip service instead of an organic part.
The overall flavor profile indicates that Waititi, whose own cartoonish appearance as a priest feels like an afterthought, has become bored with his signature brand of goofy uplift. Going by the unfunny self-referential gags (“The Karate Kid,” “The Matrix,” “Taken”), you’d swear the Oscar-winning filmmaker was struggling with the impulse to go full parody. Even Fassbender seems befuddled by whether he’s supposed to upend things or follow the blueprint. The movie isn’t sure of itself either. When a character launches into a teary confession of severe personal pain and your first thought is that the monologue will end with a “Just kidding,” you know a script’s in trouble.