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Review: 'Next Goal Wins' turns losing soccer team into champs

"Next Goal Wins" is an irresistible underdog story -- sports-fan credentials not required.

"Next Goal Wins" is an irresistible underdog story — sports-fan credentials not required. The lively documentary follows the biggest loser in international soccer as it tries to break a 17-year winless streak.

To use the word "organization" is putting too fine a point on it: The team in question resides in the South Pacific territory of American Samoa, and the volunteer players are about as far removed as you can get — geographically and every other way — from the business of high-profile, high-stakes athletics.

Their island culture, laid back but intense in its interconnectedness, comes across vividly in the debut film by British commercial directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. Looking behind the scenes of a well-documented story, they tap into that collective spirit and also benefit from a couple of striking personalities in the appealing lineup.

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One is Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender athlete to compete in a World Cup qualifying game. Born Johnny and identifying as a woman, Saelua is a member of the fa'afafine, a third-gender tradition that places Samoa centuries ahead of the industrialized world in terms of openness and acceptance.

The coach who put Saelua in the history books is the brash Netherlands native Thomas Rongen, seen falling for the team as he goads it through the 2014 qualification matches. Before his arrival, outside attempts to pump up the players meet understandably skeptical silence, as when a sports psychology consultant invokes Mount Everest, "the tallest mountain in North America."

Cinematically, there's nothing exceptional about "Next Goal." But with its grasp of suspense and character, it hits the mark as a portrait of openhearted determination that's devoid of desperation.

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"Next Goal Wins"

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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