I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of football/soccer
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
We film critics are a jaded, jaded lot. We tend, as a group, not to respond in overtly obvious emotional ways while watching a film. It’s not that we don’t care — it’s that we’ve seen it all and it’s much harder to take us by surprise. Could be, too, that the majority of critics are men, and many men will stifle sniffles, especially, quicker than women will. (I’ve sometimes been the only critic in a screening room who needs a Kleenex or three at the end of a film.) So when I tell you that the second most incredible emotional response I’ve ever seen from a crowd of critics was at a press screening of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the New York Film Festival in 2000, this is significant: that scene with the warriors seeming to defy gravity and walking across treetops was so overwhelming that I could feel the amazement rippling through the audience, and it ended with an eruption of spontaneous applause, because we couldn’t not express our awe.
It took 13 and a half years for that experience to be topped. But it has now, with Next Goal Wins. But this is not a fantasy action spectacle. It’s a documentary about the world’s losingest football (what the U.S. calls soccer) team. They’re like the Bad News Bears, except for real, and this isn’t a comedy, either. And yet first-time filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison made a movie that moved a bunch of movie professionals to the most un-hold-back-able group response I’ve ever experienced in a cinema. I’d say that maybe it’s just that it’s more socially acceptable for men — who comprised about 80 percent of the audience in my screening — to get publicly emotional over sports than over other matters… but I could not possibly care less about football, and I was just as caught up in this film as they were.
When we meet the football team from American Samoa, a tiny group of small islands in the middle of the Pacific, they are quite factually the “world’s worst.” In 2001, they were legendarily trounced by Australia by a score of 31-0… and this in a sport where 1-1 is considered an exciting match. It’s still the biggest defeat in the game’s history. The American Samoan team kept playing after that, but they never won a match, never even scored against an opposing team. Still, they are determined to keep trying, and so here we witness what happens when the hugely reputable U.S. Soccer Federation lends them help for their prep for the then upcoming World Cup qualifiers (which took place in 2011). Former pro player turned coach and all-around football badass Thomas Rongen is appalled at what he finds: little skill among the team, and no discipline. And they don’t respond well when he yells at them for it.
And then Brett and Jamison start to delve into the lives of the players, show us around their island world, and highlight the limitations they live and play under… and from then on, we’re totally on their side. (Rongen comes around a bit, too, even as he whips them into shape. There’s a lot of poignant meeting-in-the-middle going on here.) They are amateur players, we discover, who work other jobs, if they’re lucky; American Samoa is poor, with little opportunity and almost no hope of leaving short of joining the U.S. military. An earthquake and tsunami in 2009 devastated parts of the islands, and people are still living with the impact and the lingering trauma. These guys have a lot of heart and a lot of guts to even think about going up against well-funded teams and professional athletes. The team is no joke, even if it has been a punchline.
Everything here works so beautifully and so seamlessly that you’ll forget you’re watching a structured narrative: it feels like it’s unfolding in real time, especially once the team gets to their qualifying matches. It’s always deeply moving and engaging, a story about renewed determination, hard work, and a little bit of success building confidence where only despair was before, particularly as embodied in goalie Nicky Salapu, who carries the ignominy of having allowed those 31 goals against Australia. But there are unexpected aspects to the story as well, perhaps most ingratiatingly team member Jaiyah Saelua, whom we would call transgender but whom the Samoans acknowledge, without any apparent prejudice or problem, as “third gender.” Jai’s unextraordinary presence on the team and acceptance in a deeply Christian culture is a smack in the face to things we might consider so “normal” as to be almost unremarkable (even if we complain about them anyway): the supposedly inevitable machismo of team sports, and the supposedly ingrained homophobia of traditional religion. That Jai steals the movie with her winning personality is a bonus.
I still am a little bit in shock at how much I love a movie about football. It’s an extraordinary story about people I won’t soon forget. See it, and you will be walking on air and grinning like an idiot for hours afterward.