Director – Taika Waititi – 2023 – US – Cert. 12a – 104m
Big budget, narrative remake / reimagining of the compelling 2014 documentary about the world’s worst national football team mostly falls flat – out in UK cinemas on Tuesday, December 26th
Film productions come in all shapes and sizes: there is a valid place for both small, microbudget, independent, art house films and another for big budget, Studio based, mega-budget, mass market films. Nine years ago, Next Goal Wins (Mike Brett, Steve Jamison, 2014), a tiny, independent documentary film shot with minimal resources, emerged from a production set-up which afforded the filmmakers considerable creative freedom without which it’s unlikely their ultimately remarkable, compelling and insightful film would ever have come together in the way it did. Nine years after the original film, it has been remade as a narrative feature with name actors and a director with a proven gift for comedy.
The documentary was about the world’s worst national football team. American Samoa suffered the worst ever defeat for a soccer team in a World Cup qualifier when they lost to Australia by a staggering 31 goals to nil. The filmmakers hit paydirt when the team hired professional football coach Thomas Rongen to turn their fortunes around: suddenly, they unexpectedly had a film pitting the chilled out, American Samoan way of life against the ruthless, competitive ethos of international team sports.
In the new version, British actor Michael Fassbender is cast as Rongen, whose football coaching career is on the skids, a part of the story that the original documentary never really explored. In the film’s one hilarious scene, he goes through the various stages of grief during the metting from which he’s fired from his current coaching position. At this point, you feel that the movie’s in good hands with writer-director Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, 2019; Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016; What We Do in the Shadows, 2014; Eagle vs. Shark, 2007; TV series Flight of the Conchords, TV series, 2007-9; director only: Thor: Ragnorok, 2017; What We Do in the Shadows, TV series, 2019-).
Alas, much of the rest of the film is leaden, and the humour overall doesn’t work. It feels as if someone has taken the original, which is a true joy to watch, and homogenised it, squeezing out all the vitality so that what remains is mostly lifeless. Elements that made sense in the documentary, such as defender Jaiyah Saelua (played here by Kaimana) being a fa’afafine – the Samoan third gender who although born as men live 24/7 as women and are completely accepted as such within Samoan (and thus American Samoan) society, are glossed over, perhaps for fear of offending a mainstream audience, rather than explained properly, and so lose their impact.
Also in the cast are David Fane (Eagle vs. Shark), longtime Waititi collaborator Rachel House (Thor: Ragnorok; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Eagle vs. Shark) and Elizabeth Moss as Rongen’s ex.
In short, while this looks fantastic on paper, something clearly went badly wrong. Perhaps it was the editing process, or perhaps the material shot on film simply failed to come together. Whatever went wrong, the finished film is a travesty of the original, a movie to file under the category of, I watched it, so you don’t have to. Avoid. However, if you get the chance to see the excellent, original, source documentary, do so.
Next Goal Wins is out in cinemas in the UK on Tuesday, December 26th.