Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins sets out to dismantle both the white-savior trope and the underdog sports team genre. But while Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris go out of their way to subvert expectations when it comes to those particular elements, Next Goal Wins plays into some particularly troublesome stereotypes when it comes to its central trans character.
Next Goal Wins is based on a true story: The 2014 documentary of the same name follows the comeback journey of the American Samoa soccer team after its record-breaking 31-0 loss in a 2001 World Cup qualifier game. One part of that comeback story involves the rise of Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender player to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualification game. But in telling this story, Waititi makes some baffling choices in depicting the relationship between coach Thomas Rongen (played in the fictionalized version of the story by Michael Fassbender) and Jaiyah (nonbinary actor Kaimana).
[Ed. note: This piece contains significant spoilers for Next Goal Wins.]
In one of their first interactions, Thomas pointedly addresses Jaiyah by her deadname and emphasizes that it’s her “real” name, which understandably pisses her off: She tackles him, knocking him to the ground. He never apologizes. Instead, she’s the one who has to approach him to make amends. Waititi makes it clear that Thomas is uncomfortable with Jaiyah’s gender: Initially, he uses it as a weapon against her when he’s annoyed with her behavior on the team, and later, he asks confused questions about her status as fa’afafine. From the way the movie is edited, with long, lingering shots of Jaiyah tossing her hair over her shoulder as she walks across the field in a flattering dress, it almost seems like Thomas’ attitude problem is because he’s reluctantly attracted to her.
As it turns out, the reason he’s so prickly about Jaiyah is because she reminds him of his dead daughter. (That makes those lingering shots of her even more unsettling.) But we don’t even specifically find out his daughter is dead until the last quarter of the movie. It’s hinted at, but none of the characters explicitly say it. Instead, they refer nebulously to some event they think Thomas needs to get over. This lack of clarity doesn’t add anything to the movie, besides turning Thomas’ emotional arc into an unnecessary “Gotcha — you thought he was sad about his wife leaving him, but he’s actually sad about his dead daughter!” moment, and making Jaiyah and Thomas’ relationship really weird.
What makes Waititi’s choice even uncomfortable is that there’s no particular indication that the real-life Thomas Rongen had any problem with Jaiyah’s gender identity. So adding strange tension between them and a scene where he blatantly misgenders her does a disservice to their real-life counterparts.
It also undermines the real-life Saelua’s accomplishment as the first openly nonbinary and trans woman to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. The movie only hints at that fact: When Jaiyah goes off her meds in an effort to give the team an edge, it’s mostly so she can have a breakdown in the bathroom, allowing Thomas to have a heart-to-heart with her and project more of his dead daughter onto her.
That death was a real-life tragedy Rongen went through, but Waititi weaponizes it as the crux of his emotional arc in this movie. Considering the deliberate unpacking of the white-savior tropes and sports-movie cliches in this film, a throughline about a white man being sad about a dead woman in his life, and healing by projecting that relationship onto the nearest non-male person around him, sticks out even more as a dated storytelling device.
At best, it’s an overdone storyline in a movie that was supposedly designed to stay away from overdone storylines. At worst, it adds a bigoted edge to their relationship that seemingly never existed, undermining both Saelua’s actual accomplishments and Rongen’s very real trauma. Waititi didn’t set out to create an entirely factual movie; he’s made it clear he wanted to focus on “emotional truths” in this piece of history. But when it comes to this relationship, the truth becomes warped beyond recognition in a way that’s almost cruel.
Next Goal Wins opens in theaters on Nov. 17.
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