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Hollywood take on Pacific football tale gets mixed reviews

actor Michael Fassbender as Rongen

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Oscar-winning director Taika Waititi's latest film, about the American Samoan football team, comes four years after shooting wrapped.

But it seems that some reviewers couldn't wait to stick the knife into the film after its international premiere in Canada.

COVID-19 and having to recast one star actor has meant the very delayed release of Next Goal Wins.

The movie is based on a British documentary of the same name about the American Samoan team following its 31-0 defeat in 2011 at the hands of Australia in a World Cup qualifier.

In a fairytale story, American Samoa manages to win its first-ever competitive match in the following World Cup campaign just one year later.

Both the documentary and the drama version focus largely on the coach Thomas Rongen, a gruff Dutch-American who tries to get the best out of his part-time players.

Waititi's film features renowned actor Michael Fassbender as Rongen and in typical movie-making fashion interprets events in its own way.

The film, which also stars New Zealanders Oscar Kightley, Dave Fane, Beulah Koale and Rachel House, premieres in the United States in November and New Zealand and other countries in December.

Reviewers were able to see the film at the Toronto International Film Festival this month — and some left the cinema far from impressed.

The Guardian derided the casting of Fassbender as Rongen and pulls no punches as it goes for a killer KO: "The film is a shoddily made and strikingly unfunny attempt to tell an interesting story in an uninteresting way."

Ten count and out! And yet, if that isn't enough here's the reviewer's summary: "Shot almost four years ago and drifting in the ether ever since, Next Goal Wins plays an unfunny old game, the real losers being those of us watching."

Meanwhile, Allison Wilmore of the New York magazine, under the headline 'Is Taika Waititi even trying anymore?' is equally critical of the movie, pondering whether it actually has any purpose.

While Willmore admits to finding the scene where Rongen is sacked by the American FA board which includes the wife he's just separated from and her new boyfriend, that's about as good as it gets in her review. "But the film is otherwise so sloppily assembled, and so lazy, that it frequently ends up feeling like an inadvertent parody of the underdog-sports genre it belongs to."

Another reviewer, Kirsty Puchko of Mashable, doesn't feel comfortable about what the "transphobia" in terms of the way transgender player Jaiyah Saelua — played by Kaimana — is treated.

"Taika Waititi undercuts his ensemble by reducing most of them to barely their roles. He dabbles in transphobia to lazily construct a grump-to-good-guy arc, which is not only ugly but also a disservice to Jaiyah Saelua and Kaimana."

Nevertheless, Kaleem Aftab of the BBC is neither offended nor struggling to find a funny bone, writing that NGW "should only raise his [Waititi's] stock further."

Aftab writes that: "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."

And Hollywood publication Deadline reports that the film premiere in Toronto "received great cheers and a heartfelt response."

But what of American Samoa itself? Football Federation American Samoa CEO Tavita Taumua has told New Zealand media that football was developing in the territory and the film would give it a big boost.

He told 1News people in American Samoa who have seen the film were "impressed" and "very happy to see something about American Samoa."