On a Monday night at Auckland’s Newmarket cinema, there is a flurry. A buzz in the air, for Taika Waititi’s soon-to-be-released film, Next Goal Wins, is showing an advanced screening to a selected group of fans and industry insiders.
Swapping out the typical red carpet for green, journalists and camera crew squish into the media pit readying themselves to talk to three of the film’s main stars, Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Semu Filipo. While they may have expected to hear the usual spiel about how the film is a great watch, one that will make you chuckle and leave you feeling a little bit lighter than before, the reality was something far more special.
“This is a movie about hope,” Kightley tells the Herald with a sparkle in his eye, and it’s immediately clear he couldn’t have described it better if he tried.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, the film follows hot-headed Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) as he attempts to lead the American Samoa national football team — a side that had never scored a goal in an international competition — to qualify for the 2014 Fifa World Cup. But, in typical Waititi fashion, the film interprets the events of the American Samoan team’s 31-0 defeat to Australia in 2001 and first competitive win one year later, in its own unique fashion.
It’s a story of heart and family, of trust and, of course, hope. But it hasn’t been an easy road to get it to the big screen.
A global pandemic, a Rugby World Cup and two Waititi films later, the 2019 filmed production is finally hitting cinemas on December 7 and the cast couldn’t be happier.
“I’m over the moon about this one. It’s been a long time coming,” Filipo says, grinning.
Kightly confesses there were times when he didn’t think the film would ever see the light of day, let alone a cinema big screen, but he’s thankful everything has fallen into place.
“I knew it was cool, I knew it was special what we were making. It had Taika, it had all the resources that he could muster as a Hollywood director.”
Filipo adds: “I’m also just happy that Kiwis, Polynesians, this part of the world gets to see a story and see some amazing brown people that have been in the industry for so long, but also a Polynesian story for our Polynesian people.”
Smiling, he clarifies what he means by that: “And I include everyone from New Zealand as Polynesian.”
Unfortunately, award-winning director Waititi couldn’t make the New Zealand premiere, but he sent his very best and it was obvious he was very missed by the cast.
Speaking highly of their experience with the star, Fane gushes over his old friend.
“Taika,” the actor scoffs, “Taika is the most wonderful, open-hearted man that I know — but working with him is silly.”
For Filipo, he jokes that the director is a “d*ck” but it’s clear he is in awe and still captivated by the director’s quirky essence.
“He’s actually a genius. I had one day off during my shoot and instead of doing whatever, I went to set and I watched Taika work. I just wanted to see how the man worked.”
The film — which also stars Beulah Koale and Rachel House — has already had its international premiere at Toronto’s International Film Festival and received less-than-ideal critical responses.
The Guardian pulled no punches, saying: “The film is a shoddily made and strikingly unfunny attempt to tell an interesting story in an uninteresting way.” While Allison Wilmore of New York magazine — under the headline “Is Taika Waititi even trying anymore?” — was equally critical of the movie, pondering whether it actually has any purpose.
But the negative reviews haven’t shaken the cast, they’re proud of their work and what it means for Polynesian people. They’re stoked with Waititi’s story and, when asked why Kiwis should head along to the theatre and watch the film, the answer is a very simple one.
“It’s Taika, man.” Kightly says, “It’s one of our favourite and most best storytellers.”
Lillie Rohan is an Auckland-based reporter covering lifestyle and entertainment stories who joined the Herald in 2020. She specialises in all things relationships and dating, great Taylor Swift ticket wars and TV shows you simply cannot miss out on.