Photo Courtesy of TIFF.

#TIFF23: “Next Goal Wins” is a Sports Comedy With Heart That Doesn’t Always Come Together

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labour of the actors and other creatives involved in the project(s) mentioned here, Pages and Pictures would not exist. Pages and Pictures stands firmly behind SAG-AFTRA members as they fight for fair labour conditions.

Next Goal Wins is a charming sports story with a sweet story and characters who are easy to root for. While it may be a simple and familiar story, it manages to retain its charm throughout. This movie is a picture-perfect illustration of Taika Waititi’s artistic vision as it contains a wildly imperfect and chaotic protagonist paired with a zany movie that’s easy to love. 

As a protagonist, Michael Fassbender isn’t an easy one to love. This is mostly okay, sometimes. His gruff exterior that encompasses a heart of gold is presumably meant to be relatable to at least a certain segment of the population. It’s incredibly difficult to have any sympathy for a man who’s so violently transphobic. It’s unfortunate that the story doesn’t take more time to interrogate this and break it down. Instead, he’s mostly given a pass as he processes his grief and anger. It’s unfortunate that his story mostly ends here. 

The real star of this story is Jaiyah (Kaimana). Everything about her and her story is captivating to watch. Truthfully, the entire story could have been about her journey. The story would have been much stronger if it had focused on her and her life. She clearly has a compelling story of her own, surrounded by family and a team who love her unconditionally. Hers is a story that would have shaken up this story in a way that’s desperately needed. What there is of this character is nothing less than endearing. 

As a sports story, Next Goal Wins knows the formula quite well. The movie uses its short runtime to effectively wrap everything up in a nice little package. This is exactly what is to be expected from this kind of story. It can be nice to see a simple arc like this one, uncomplicated and easy to cheer for, unfold. Sports have the ability to showcase the most endearing parts of the human experience. Stories like these, of underdogs, are always the easiest to invest in. 

The strongest element of this movie is the ensemble. Watching the contrast between Coach Rongen and the American Samoan team is an effective way to showcase this lovable family. The way they support each other is so incredibly charming. Even in their flaws, the fact that they are willing to lift one another up makes them so easy to empathize with. Clearly, their way of life fosters this kind of support. Their collective humour is the perfect way to contrast their new football coach’s miserable attitude. 

Finally, the stakes themselves are appropriate for the story. Although this story is based on true events, there are evidently opportunities to exaggerate and over-dramatize. It is a smart choice to make the stakes so personal. It ultimately isn’t about football victory or even about proving their worth as a team. The fact that they simply want to score one goal and play together as a team really distils what sports stories are supposed to be about.

Next Goal Wins is an imperfect but sweet journey that’s worth taking. The charming characters and their equally endearing story make for a pleasant viewing experience. The ensemble is what brings everything together, with their collective humor and good intentions. Even though the protagonist can be completely removed from the story, what remains is charming. Even while this may not be the most memorable feel-good sports story, it’s still one worth investing in.

Next Goal Wins is coming to theatres November 17, 2023.

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