Fall film festivals are usually where we look for the more serious awards bait pictures, but occasionally as with tonight’s rousing World Premiere of Taikia Waititi’s long-gestating American Somoan soccer comedy, Next Goal Wins, you get a real commercial crowd pleaser.

That is exactly what Waititi has delivered in adapting the 2014 documentary of the same time by filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. Yes, this heartfelt movie fits right in with the well-overworked Hollywood sports movie formula – you know the ragtag team that becomes triumphant against all odds. The triumph here wasn’t on a huge scale for the American Samoan team which notoriously holds the record for the single biggest loss in International Football history when they lost the World Cup to Australia 31 to 0 in 2001. They went on to remain at the bottom of the FIFA rankings until November of 2011 when they finally got a goal, a victory itself, and beat Tonga 2 to 1 in the Oceania Football Confederation Cup qualifier.

With a real life story and a wonderfully likeable group of underdogs how could this not be a major studio movie? In fact it has been made under Searchlight, the specialty label of Disney’s 2Oth Century subsidiary and they have given Waititi (Oscar winner for his screenplay of the wonderful JoJo Rabbit,as well as commercial but quirky movies like Thor: Ragnorok, and indie gems like his breakthrough The Hunt For The Wilderpeople. ) the full opportunity to add his inimitable touches that separate it from the usual kind of playbook we see over and over in the genre. Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso did the same thing on its own level and achieved success by putting character ahead of the expected formula and found huge success. For the same reason Next Goal Wins could be a nice hit for Searchlight, especially as a family attraction that isn’t animated. The TIFF crowd was cheering like they were at a real match.

Michael Fassbender stars as football (soccer) coach Thomas Rogers who was the real coach brought in, but this portrayal is said to be nothing like the actual Rogers as dramatic license was taken in creating the character in the script by Waititi and Iain Morris. He is a not-so-likeable hot tempered guy who gets demoted and sent to American Somoa to coach this bunch of “losers” . He is not happy, and to add to his misery his ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) now dates American Soccer Federation head Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett who replaced Armie Hammer during 2021 reshoots). He reluctantly goes and doesn’t sense it quite yet, but his life and outlook are going to change dramatically as he gets to know these lovable players and the community that surrounds them. They are anything but losers, despite the numbers that would say otherwise. Chief among them is Tavita (Oscar Knightley), head of the Football Federation of American Samoa and the guy who becomes his right hand in whipping the team into shape. He manages the steal the movie in many ways, a complete delight. There is also his enthusiastic and loving wife, Ruth (a sweet Rachel House), Ace, the assistant coach (David Fane), Jaiyah (Kaimana) the first transgender athlete to ever compete in an FIFA match final, Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu) the hapless goalie, and the irrepressible Rambo (Semu Filipo) a big guy with a highly unusual style on the field, just to highlight a few.

From trying to turn the team into a cohesive whole, to actually getting into meaningful games, and finally of course the big finale where their fortunes change dramatically , we see Thomas also grow dramatically as the man who suffered a great personal tragedy two years earlier and now has found a new kind of family. Fassbender himself, usually a more serious type of actor gets to show another side of his talent and adapts nicely, even with newly dyed blonde hair for the part. Moss and Arnett don’t have that much to do, as the spotlight is on the wonderful cast of newcomers and veteran actors from the Polynesian Triangle as it is known. Big shoutout to casting directors Mary Vernieu and Michelle Wade Byrd.

Ultimately this is a film pretty true to the documentary, but one Waititi has infused with so much heart and his quirky sense of humor that it stands as a nice original on its own.

Producers are Waititi, Garrett Basch, Brett, Jamison, and Jonathan Cavendish who originally developed the project with his partner in Imaginarium, Andy Serkis who serves as an Executive Producer.

Title: Next Goal Wins

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Festival: Toronto Film Festival

Release Date: November 17, 2023

Director: Taika Waititi

Screenplay: Taika Waititi and Iain Morris

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Oscar Knightley, Kaimana, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss, Uli Latukefu, David Fane, Rachel House, Beulah Leoale.

Rating: PG 13

Running Time: 1 Hour and 43 minutes

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