Comedy Drama

The Uncoachables: A TIFF Review of ‘Next Goal Wins’

September 18, 2023Ben MK

One of the most overdone and cliché-ridden genres in movies, the sports underdog drama is essentially the Swiss Army knife of cinema. Whether you're into baseball, basketball, football or hockey, you can rest assured that there's a film out there about an individual or team who's terrible at said sport, but who, through hard work and perseverance, managed to overcome adversity and come out on top. It's a tried-and-true tale of triumph that has won over audiences time and time again. And while Next Goal Wins doesn't stray far from the pack, leave it to director Taika Waititi to make a sports underdog movie that reminds moviegoers of why we love the genre so much in the first place.

Set in 2011, the story follows American Samoa's national soccer team, an unconventional and uncoordinated assortment of misfits who've been the laughing stock of the international soccer community ever since suffering the biggest defeat in FIFA history a decade earlier. It's a situation that Tavita (Oscar Kightley), the beleaguered head of the Football Federation of American Samoa, hopes to change by hiring disgraced Dutch-American football manager Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who only accepts the job because all of his other coaching opportunities have dried up. However, when Thomas arrives on the small Pacific island of 45,000, what he finds barely resembles a group of athletes. A rage-aholic who recently divorced his wife, Gail (Elisabeth Moss), and whose teenage daughter died in a car accident two years prior, Thomas isn't the ideal candidate to help Tavita turn around his team's fortunes either. But with less than two weeks to go until the FIFA World Cup qualifying matches, both sides will have to buckle down and reconcile their many differences if there's any chance for American Samoa to make it past round one of the qualifiers — or at least score the first goal in their nation's history.

Laugh-out-loud hilarious, heartwarming and totally cheer-worthy, the result doesn't differ ostensibly from the countless underdog sports films that have come before. Still, despite not doing much to justify its own existence, Next Goal Wins nevertheless manages to deliver plenty of feel-good vibes. A crowd-pleasing sports comedy that also highlights the importance of diversity, acceptance and family, it's a movie that will tug at viewers' heartstrings, as well as their funny bones. And even though Waititi himself has long moved beyond the status of Hollywood underdog, it's nice to see that he hasn't forgotten what it's like being the little guy.

Next Goal Wins screens under the Special Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 43 min.

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