Greetings again from the darkness. It might seem that a team goal of merely scoring a goal is setting the sights a bit low, but then again, we are talking about the American Samoa soccer team that lost to Australia by the incredible score of 31-0 (not a typo) in a World Cup qualifier. Brought to you by the comedic genius of writer-director Taika Waititi and his co-writer Iain Morris (“The Inbetweeners”), it was filmed in Hawaii a few years ago and easily slides into the category of feel-good entertainment, despite the near-certainty that some will accuse Waititi of cultural insensitivity. Much of it is based on a true story.
For those familiar with Waititi, you know that he’s a quirky and talented New Zealander filmmaker behind such gems as JOJO RABBIT (his Oscar winner from 2019), THOR: RAGNAROK (2017, still my favorite non-Batman superhero movie), HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016, a hidden gem that I frequently recommend), and two terrific TV series, “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Flight of the Conchords”. So, it’s not surprising that this latest is a bit difficult to categorize. Is it a story of underdogs rising to discover their own self-worth? Or is it the story of a misguided, bitter coach rising to discover his own self-worth? Or is it the story of how culture bonds a community in the face of embarrassment? Or is it the touching story of the first non-binary trans person to play World Cup soccer? The film’s weakness is that it’s a bit of all without really being ‘about’ any. Instead, Waititi focuses on having a good time and making us smile.
Michael Fassbender stars as Thomas Rongen, a soccer coach whose anger issues tend to boil over at the wrong times, costing him a marriage (Elisabeth Moss) and a premier coach gig. The federation (led by smarmy Will Arnet) cast him off to coach the worst team in the sport, American Samoa. Of course, Rongen drinks too much and sees himself as too good to coach the team of misfits, despite the warm welcome from Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley), the head of the Football Federation of American Samoa. Tavita’s wife, Ruth, (the always humorous Rachel House), is a bit more direct as she sees Rongen for what he is.
The 2014 World Cup qualifiers are fast-approaching, and Rongen and the players go through ups and downs … and we do discover what is contributing to Rongen’s bitterness. Not surprisingly, the Samoan culture helps him every bit as much as he helps the team. Most poignant is the arc of Jaiyah (played by Kaimana), a member of the fa’afafine community as a trans person … again, based on a real-life person.
Supporting work is provided by Rhys Darby (so good in “Flight of the Conchords”), Luke Hemsworth, Angus Sampson, and Kaitlyn Dever. The best (and obvious) comparisons are THE BAD NEWS BEARS and THE MIGHTY DUCKS, only this time it’s grown-ups rather than kids. An argument can be made (and I would) that Fassbender is miscast, but he’s so talented, it doesn’t hurt the film much. Sure, the story structure is a bit weak, as is the character development, however the film is quitey entertaining, as Waititi finds the humor without being offensive or condescending.
Opens in theaters on November 17, 2023