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Kaimana and the cast in a scene from Taika Waititi’s soccer comedy Next Goal Wins.Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures

Next Goal Wins

Directed by Taika Waititi

Written by Taika Waititi and Iain Morris, based on the documentary Next Goal Wins

Starring Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley and Elisabeth Moss

Classification PG; 103 minutes

Opens in theatres Nov. 17

The least surprising movie-industry news of 2023 occurred this past June, when the Toronto International Film Festival announced that Taika Waititi’s sports comedy Next Goal Wins would make its world premiere at that fall’s edition.

Practically lab-engineered for a TIFF audience, Waititi’s film is just the kind of lightly quirky, come-from-behind underdog story that works so hard to get the audience on its side that you can practically see the flop sweat staining the digital print. Add that sensibility to the many soft landings that Waititi has enjoyed at TIFF over the years – Jojo Rabbit, the director’s “anti-fascist satire” (his words, not mine) took home the fest’s top audience prize in 2019 – and Next Goal Wins arrived in Toronto with a kind of anti-colonial manifest destiny: a tale of Indigenous outsiders, made by someone who has become the ultimate industry insider, that was determined to win over crowds at all costs.

That dream didn’t quite happen. Although the TIFF audience attending the film’s first screening inside the Princess of Wales theatre ate it up, with several lines of dialogue drowned out by laughter, the reception outside the world-premiere bubble was far chillier. It isn’t hard to see where things went wrong: Despite a handful of outstanding elements, this is Waititi on full autopilot mode two films in a row now, after the similarly shrug-worthy Thor: Love and Thunder. Taking every conceivable shortcut while cockily assuming that audiences won’t notice because it’s all so faux-confident, the New Zealand filmmaker is on a winking charm offensive here that reeks of deadpan indifference.

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Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, Next Goal Wins dramatizes (comedatizes?) the story of Dutch-American soccer (re: football) coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who is sent to rehabilitate the American Samoa team, the very worst players in the professional world. Can the alcoholic and temper-tantrum-prone Rongen help the players, managed by jack-of-all-island-trades Tavita (Oscar Kightley), achieve their athletic dreams? Will he stop brazenly insulting the team’s trans player, Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana)? Will Waititi figure out a way to squeeze Rongen’s ex-wife (Elisabeth Moss) into the proceedings, even though she has nothing to do with the story?

All these questions will be answered – some more generously than others – in a classic fish-out-of-water tale in which the final stand-up-and-cheer match is preordained from the first frame, with loads of Very Important Life Lessons learned along the way.

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Michael Fassbender in Next Goal Wins.Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/SMPSP/Searchlight Pictures

Mostly, this is lightweight, enjoyable-if-you-don’t-invest-too-much fare. Although he is miscast and sporting a horrible blond hair-dye job, Fassbender does as much as he can to balance Rongen as an incurable jerk and inherently decent guy. Non-binary performer Kaimana has a natural charisma that helps anchor some of Waititi’s more tone-deaf decisions (having Saelua apologize to Rongen for his own bigoted thinking is a head-shaking moment). Kightley is consistently hilarious as the never-say-die Tavita. And even Waititi’s Flight of the Conchords buddy Rhys Darby pops by to deliver five minutes of solid straight-man shtick.

Yet the talented performers are ultimately overmatched by a janky script that telegraphs every emotional swerve and narrative beat as if audiences are not to ever be trusted. And then there’s the obnoxious decision by Waititi to cast himself as a bucktoothed American-Samoan priest whose fourth-wall-breaking narration bookends the film.

While the knives are clearly out for Waititi in certain circles, Next Goal Wins shouldn’t mark an elimination round for the filmmaker, who still seems like a storyteller with something to say. Consider this more like a yellow card. Better luck next TIFF.

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