Taika Waititi film faces criticism over trans storyline

Fact-based comedy sees non-binary actor Kaimana portray Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender footballer to compete in a world cup game

Louis Chilton
Thursday 14 September 2023 18:45 BST
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Taika Waititi’s latest film, Next Goal Wins, is facing early criticism over its handling of a storyline involving a transgender character.

The footballing comedy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has received mixed reviews from critics.

In the film, Michael Fassbender plays Dutch-American football coach Thomas Rongen, who managed the national team for American Samoa, an infamously bad sporting team who once lost 31-0 during a match against Australia.

Waititi, known for directing the Oscar-winning Holocaust comedy JoJo Rabbit and the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, also co-wrote the screenplay alongside English writer Iain Morris.

One of the film’s subplots follows Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender footballer to compete in a world cup game. Played in the film by non-binary actor Kaimana, Saelua is a non-binary trans woman who is fa’afafine, a third gender recognised in Polynesian society.

Early reviews for Waititi’s film have praised Kaimana’s performance, but many questioned the way her storyline was handled.

“Despite a lovely performance from Kaimana — who has the most dramatic material to tackle — Waititi’s treatment of gender is flippant,” wrote Esther Zuckerman in a review for IndieWire.

“Though Jaiyah is not discriminated against in her own country, Next Goal Wins highlights (and tries to get some laughs out of) her otherness and seems unequipped to handle discussions of hormones and other facets of transness.”

Charles Bramesco of The Playlist wrote: “Secret weapon Jaiyah (the mononymous, non-binary, altogether transfixing Kaimana) initially baffles Thomas with her gender identity of fa’afafine, taken for granted in the Pacific as an important piece of the local cultural heritage. He deadnames her to motivate her during practice. Then, after she knocks him out, she’s sent on the high road of apology to him for a reconciliatory heart-to-heart in which she smiles through an invasive inquiry about her genitals.

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Taika Waititi speaking onstage at the Toronto International Film Festival

“The movie’s emotional climax uses her transition with a vulgar blatancy of purpose, just so Thomas can give her the pep talk that instantly dissolves her dysphoria. That ruinous miscalculation throws something of a damper on the excitement of the big game, even as Waititi nimbly jukes away from the sports-movie clichés that force scripts into a boring win-loss binary.”

Variety’s Peter Debruge wrotes: “The Jaiyah character, a female-identifying Fa’afafine who went on to be the first trans woman to play in a World Cup qualifier, is basically reason for this movie to exist, and though she gets plenty of screentime, the film’s only surprises involve her – which means a less clichéd and far more original version of this story might have been shaped around her journey.”

A review by discussingfilm.net criticises the “baffling series of scenes of Thomas being transphobic followed by a moment of Jaiyah reaching out to him to apologise”.

“Jaiyah’s actions are given very little motivation, from her initial pushback against Thomas’s leadership to her being the one to reach out to the man who repeatedly and maliciously deadnamed her,” it adds. “Between Thomas’s presence in American Samoa to his struggles with his own daughter, Nicole (Kaitlyn Dever), Jaiyah exists in this film to serve Thomas’s narrative.”

Others on social media further called out the fact that the real Thomas Rongen has not been accused of transphobic behaviour.

The Independent has contacted Waititi’s representative for comment.

Waititi has previously spoken out in support of the trans community. He also executive produces and stars in the Max series Our Flag Means Death, which has received widespread acclaim for its LGBT+ representation.

Next Goal Wins is released in the UK on 29 December.

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