Michael Fassbender Is Thrust Into Island Life in Taika Waititi’s Sports Comedy ‘Next Goal Wins’ 

For his latest film, writer-director Taika Waititi found inspiration in the 2014 sports documentary “Next Goal Wins,” and the result is his uplifting, earnest sports dramedy of the same name. Michael Fassbender stars as Thomas Rongen, an American soccer coach with Dutch roots who is assigned to coach the American Samoa international team in the hopes of transforming them from shockingly horrible to mediocre. What starts off as a conventional white savior sports film turns into a cheer-worthy experience.

To say that the American Samoa team is an underdog team would be quite the understatement. In 2001, ten years before the events of the film, they were easily defeated in an Oceanian qualifying match for the FIFA World Cup, losing 31-0 to Australia in a record-breaking victory for the Aussies. In the years since, they have failed to score a single goal, and it is Thomas’ mission to have them get at least one in at their next World Cup qualifying match, set to take place four weeks after his arrival.

As is the case in most of these films about ragtag sports teams, the “hero” coach has his own redemption arch to get through. Thomas is a rageaholic and alcoholic with a less-than-stellar track record when it comes to coaching in the States. Faced with the possibility of being fired, he reluctantly accepts his posting on this tiny Pacific island. To add salt to his wounds, the committee responsible for his banishment includes his estranged wife, Gail (Elisabeth Moss), and her boyfriend, Alex (Will Arnett).

Predictably, there is a considerable adjustment period upon Thomas’ arrival in American Samoa. A guy with anger issues does not take easily to relaxed island culture. One thing the residents are super strict about is church attendance and prayer, and it is rather jarring for Thomas when everyone around him stops to pray whenever the alarm sounds. Adding to Thomas’ frustrations is the fact that he has issues getting cell service. To comfort himself, he listens to old voicemails left by his offscreen daughter, Nicole (voiced by Katilyn Denver).

Thomas is no Ted Lasso – if anyone fulfills that role, it is Tavita (Oscar Knightley), the relentlessly positive president of the Football Federation of American Samoa – but he manages to inspire the players in his own way. The most compelling part of the film is Thomas’ relationship with one of the players, Jaiyah Saelua (talented non-binary newcomer Kaimana), a transgender woman, or fa’afafine. Although trans people are accepted and even celebrated in Samoan culture, Thomas initially has an issue with her, but a mutual respect between the two arises. He even comes to feel paternal towards her, and she replaces his absent daughter somewhat.

Above all, “Next Goal Wins” is a film about the power of community. It is not just the coaching style of Thomas, which is more disciplined and regimented than what they are used to, that inspires the team to be better, but also the fact that the whole island is cheering them on. But their number one thing that they must learn is to believe in themselves. Along with Jaiyah, the other standout player is Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), the goalie who let in the 31 goals at that infamous game. With Thomas and Jaiyah’s encouragement, he rejoins the team after ten years of wallowing, proving it is never too late to flip the script on one’s life. 

“Next Goal Wins” is a more conventional film when compared to a lot of Waititi’s other works, including the more absurd “Jojo Rabbit,” but many hallmarks found in his films are present here, including a love and respect for indigenous cultures and nature. The filmmaker himself even makes a cameo as a clergyman. Be sure to stay after the credits to see him attempt to walk on water.

Next Goal Wins” releases Nov. 17 in theaters nationwide.