Taika Waititi has become one of the world’s most famous directors. And his latest film, premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, about the world’s worst football team should only raise his stock further, writes Kaleem Aftab.
Before the credits rolled on the world premiere of his latest film, an adaptation of British documentary Next Goal Wins, New Zealand’s zany director Taika Waititi told the expectant audience, “I saw the documentary a few years ago, and I thought it was a story I had to tell and twist it… Otherwise, you might as well watch the documentary”.
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The original film, by directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, told the story of how the American Samoan national football team went from being the lowest-ranked football team in the world, having lost 31-0 to Australia in a World Cup qualifier, to being, well, not the most terrible and making a valiant attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Waititi takes this basic premise, embellishes parts of it, loses the World Cup qualification campaign and concentrates on the story of a coach and his transgender star player to create a witty adventure about how the bonds formed by being part of a team can help people overcome grief and adversity.
True to form, Waititi keeps proceedings as light as possible. He honed his irreverent brand of comedy on the successful New Zealand television series Flight of the Conchords, then built up his directorial movie credits in his homeland, making and starring in the local box-office record-breakers Boy (2010) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016). Waititi’s reinvention of the Marvel superhero movie with the hilarious Thor Ragnarok (2017) and his Charlie Chaplin-esque tackling of Adolf Hitler in Jojo Rabbit (2019) has made him one of the most famous and sought-after directors on the planet.
For his new film, he has created another entry in the “loveable sporting losers” sub-genre, which also includes the likes of Cool Runnings and Eddie the Eagle. It would be hard to call this a sports movie, even though there are plenty of scenes of hapless footballers falling over themselves as they kick a ball, as there is no real sporting goal. The American Samoan team are so bad that they have not scored a goal in the nation’s history. So when a new non-native coach arrives on the scene, he is told by the hapless but loveable heads of the country’s football association that all he has to do is help the team find the back of the net. Just once is enough.
The coach, Thomas Rongen, is played by Irish superstar Michael Fassbender. It’s excellent casting as Fassbender’s reputation for playing serious characters with deep psychological flaws makes him the perfect straight-man. His Rongen is at an all-time low. The American Football Association has tired of his constant violent outbursts and is ready to sack him; his wife has left him for another man. He is left with little to no option but to fly around the world to a sleepy island with no football history and try to install some discipline and footballing nous. He soon regrets his decision when he starts to meet the players, realising that they don’t share his belief that football is more important than life and death. Hailing from a country of only 45,000, these hapless amateurs all have multiple jobs, among them cameraman for the local television station, bar owner, waiter and taxi driver.
The most unusual aspect of this American Samoan football team is not their tragic inability to score. At the side’s heart is a player going through hormone therapy, transitioning from man to woman. The character is based on Jaiyah Saelua, who is fa’afafine, which refers to a “third gender” as understood in Polynesian society. Saelua was the first openly non-binary and trans woman to compete in a Fifa World Cup qualifier and, since the documentary’s success, has become a global equality ambassador for the organisation.
While the documentary tells this story with great care and sincerity, Waititi’s directing superpower is to take this story, turn it into a broad, light-hearted comedy, and somehow do so while retaining the tale’s social relevance – and not being offensive. Newcomer Kaimana plays Jaiyah as a kind, soft-hearted soul with a demonic streak that appears whenever someone calls her Johnny. Rongen makes this error only once.
NEXT GOAL WINS
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kaimana, Elisabeth Moss, Will Arnett
Run-time: 1hr 43m
Jaiyah’s struggles with hormone therapy come to the fore in one short emotional sequence. However, for the most part, the player’s gender is fittingly downplayed, as only the Western outsider finds her appearance on the team strange. Once Rongen overcomes his prejudice, Jaiyah is by and large treated by the manager and the filmmaker as simply one of the team; her status as the special one is because she’s the captain, the footballing talisman, rather than because of her unique status in world football. It’s a decision that means that this film avoids conversations about the hugely debated status of transgender athletes in sports.
Waititi’s winning, winsome film is his most accessible and mainstream movie to date, Marvel aside, one that successfully mixes in funny jokes with zeitgeisty social commentary.
Next Goal Wins is released on November 17 in the US
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