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Toronto: Taika Waititi’s ‘Next Goal Wins’ Gets Rousing Standing Ovation

Taika Waititi’s underdog soccer comedy Next Goal Wins brought a Toronto Film Festival audience to its feet, with particular applause showered on the real-life characters, coach Thomas Rongen and transgender soccer player Jaiyah Saelua, who were in the house for the world premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Sunday night.

“That’s the most interesting part of the story,” Waititi said in a post-screening Q&A as he introduced Jaiyah, the striker for the true-life American Samoa soccer team that infamously lost a game in 2001 by 31-0, and who is played in the film by Kaimana.

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Waititi also brought on stage the gruff Dutch soccer coach Rongen, who is played by Michael Fassbender in Next Goal Wins, and who at a low point in his life ended up saving his career by coaching the losing American Samoan team.

“You spun my head around a few times in this film,” Rongen told Waititi about Fassbender’s portrayal in Next Goal Wins, which was only loosely based on the Dutch coach in real life. Based on a 2014 British documentary of the same name from Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, Next Goal Wins follows the national football team of American Samoa and their coach as they try to transform from perennial losers into a FIFA World Cup-qualifying outfit.

Waititi explained he was motivated to dramatize the story of the worst soccer team imaginable in American Samoa after watching the 2014 documentary. “I couldn’t believe it was a true story and I had to tell it and twist that truth,” the Maori filmmaker from New Zealand said with his trademark subversive humor that endeared him to the Toronto audience.

Waititi also said making Next Goal Wins also allowed him to continue to bring indigenous stories and voices to the big screen to encourage diversity and inclusion. “As a kid growing up, there weren’t many opportunities to see yourself on screen,” he told the TIFF audience, especially comedic portrayals of indigenous peoples.

Waititi stressed his latest movie had to be authentic, including representing Jaiyah as a Fa’afafine, which in American Samoan culture are people who have fluid genders that move between the male and female worlds, and illustrate how two spirits can exist in one person.

The JoJo Rabbit director said representing a transgender soccer player in Next Goal Wins underlined how the Fa’afafine are common and treated as a normal part of the American Samoan culture. “Fa’afafine is what it is and it’s not our job to keep explaining things,” Waititi said, as he drew another round of enthusiastic applause from the TIFF audience.

The soccer comedy, which also stars Will Arnett, Oscar Knightley, David Fane and Elisabeth Moss, will get a release by Searchlight Pictures on Nov. 17.

Next Goal Wins was originally set to open in April 2023, but had to undergo reshoots when Armie Hammer exited the project after the actor was accused by multiple women of sexual assault. Arnett replaced Hammer in playing a soccer executive working at the Football Federation American Samoa.

The Toronto Film Festival continues through Sept. 17.

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