Taika Waititi’s quirky sense of humor isn’t for everyone. The New Zealand filmmaker repeatedly punched the podium microphone during his introduction of “Next Goal Wins” at its Toronto International Film Festival world premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Sunday while TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey stood by gamely smiling at the antics of his guest. Waititi, after all, had won the 2019 TIFF audience award for his last film, “Jojo Rabbit,” which had premiered in the same room and had raised eyebrows with its Nazi satire.
That said, “Next Goal Wins” is his best and most crowd-pleasing effort to date. It’s the true tale of American Samoa’s abysmal soccer team gearing up for the 2011 World Cup qualifier under the coaching of Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who had just been fired by the U.S. national team. The story spawned a 2014 documentary of the same title by Steve Jamison and Mike Brett. “Next Goal Wins” is the kind of underdog sports movie that people revere, complete with the inevitable montages of players being put through the training wringer. The cheering from the film’s soundtrack and from inside the theater auditorium during the premiere were often indistinguishable from one another.
At the time Rongen took over, the American Samoa national soccer team had long since cemented its reputation as the world’s worst with a record 31-0 loss to Australia in the 2001 World Cup qualifier. More than a decade passed between that loss and the events depicted in the film, but Waititi admitted that he juggled the facts — and in his version, that debacle causes Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley), head of the Football Federation American Samoa, to berate his team in the locker room and then immediately look for a new coach.
Though he thinks it’s treason to seek a soccer coach outside their island, his wife, Ruth (Rachel House), prompts him to reconsider — but the only person who will take the job is Rongen, who can’t get any other position after his short temper gets him fired from the U.S. team. At the urging of his estranged wife, Gail (Elisabeth Moss), the reluctantly heads to American Samoa.
The ragtag team boasts several colorful characters, including Rambo (Semu Filipo), a cop whom Rongen recruits after getting pulled over; and Jaiyah (Kaimana), who is gender-fluid and in the process of transitioning. Rongen struggles to motivate the laissez-faire players, while at the same time visiting former footballers who have given up on the sport and cajoling them to come out of their premature retirements.
Waititi is the perfect filmmaker for this comedy involving indigenous soccer players. There’s a lot of heart here. His Maori ancestry informs a sensitivity that enables him to find comedy in American Samoan culture without being at all offensive or disparaging, as he presents such examples as the religiousness and the gig economy on the island, or indigenous footballers using war cries as trash talk to intimidate the rival team.
Jaiyah’s gender identity is handled with utmost care, contributing a timely and memorable portrait to the societal discourse. Among the Pacific Islander performers, Kightley stands out as Tavita, a jack of all trades who dabbles in several side hustles.
That said, the screenplay by Waititi and Iain Morris (“The Inbetweeners”) centers on Rongen. Fassbender looks nothing like him in real life, but he does a fine job here as the only known actor with a significant role.
Given that it’s a comedy with a cast of mostly unknowns, “Next Goal Wins” may take a backseat to “Poor Things” and “All of Us Strangers” on Searchlight Pictures’ awards campaign trail. But of the three, this is clearly the one with the biggest commercial prospects. Who knows, the underdog may just have its day.