Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
(CNN) — Director Taika Waititi’s eclectic resume has ranged from Marvel’s Thor sequels to oddball comedies featuring vampires and Nazis, which makes his latest, the whimsical fact-based sports movie “Next Goal Wins,” notable mostly for how conventional it is. Warm and eager to please, it’s part underdog story, part fish out of water, hitting theaters first but likely to do most of its scoring on the fields of streaming.
Premiering the same month “The Killer” landed on Netflix, the movie also represents a change of pace for the versatile Michael Fassbender, who stars as Thomas Rongen, a down-on-his-luck soccer coach essentially forced to take a job overseeing the hapless team from American Samoa. Notorious for giving up a record number of goals, the team receives a modest objective from their organizer (Oscar Kightley) – not to win, but simply to score, something his squad has never done in international play.
Fassbender’s tightly wound coach proves an odd fit for an island where everyone obeys the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit and life simultaneously comes to a stop at a preordained time each day for prayer. Plus, the team is populated by an assortment of eccentrics, as well as a trans player, Jaiyah (Kaimana), who Rongen – the film takes place circa 2011 – initially has no idea how to treat or handle.
There’s some other business at play, including a woefully underused Elisabeth Moss as Rongen’s estranged wife. Still, “Next Goal Wins” (which actually filmed in Hawaii) mostly exists to violate the old “Seinfeld” “No hugging, no learning” rule, beginning with the simple concept that there might be something more important than winning.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Iain Morris, Waititi (who also appears in a small role) as usual rather gleefully toys with expectations, including his version of an inspiring locker-room speech and a training regimen that includes referencing “The Karate Kid” movies.
Ultimately, “Next Goal Wins” derives most of its modest charm from the film’s sheer unpretentiousness, which also makes it light enough to feel fairly disposable, despite being equipped with likable characters and scenic locales.
Then again, the movie and its makers deserve some credit strictly for taking a chance on this sort of low-key effort, recognizing that while it’s challenging to score with such material, the only way to really find out is to take a shot.
“Next Goal Wins” premieres November 17 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.