Goal! The Dream Begins

| May 12, 2006

Goal! is the first film in a planned trilogy about young Santiago Munez, an illegal immigrant who dares to dream of becoming a professional soccer player. The film features the typical cast of characters, including a disapproving father, a loving grandmother, and a supportive coach, and offers enough complications to make any ordinary young man give up his dream. Santiago, however, perseveres, and if you don’t have tears welling up at the climax of this film, you’re missing a heart.
Having escaped to America with his family as a young boy, Santiago works in the landscaping business with his father and moonlights at night as a busboy to put aside money for himself. A former football scout sees Santiago play soccer with a local team in Los Angeles and arranges for Santiago to try out for a football team in England called Newcastle United. The catch is that Santiago has to find his own way to England. Having almost earned enough for his airfare, Santiago learns that his father has stolen his money. Santiago despairs until his grandmother steps in to save the day.
That’s pretty much how each episode of the film plays out–Santiago gets close to his dream but almost loses it until someone else arrives to help him. Though predictable, the film certainly achieves a strong emotional resonance, thanks in part to the endearing performance of Kuno Becker as Santiago. You just can’t avoid wanting this kid to succeed. Even though the final moments of the film offer zero surprises, somehow it works.
The sugar level in the film is high, so diabetics may want to be wary. A cliché-riddled screenplay by Mike Jefferies and Adrian Butchart includes such overwrought lines as “you dare to dream, you lose” and this overly poetic exchange: “I don’t know where home is.” “Sure you do. It’s green and its got a goal post at each end.” The dialogue may be weak, but the actors manage to deliver their lines with conviction.
Director Danny Cannon employs visual clichés as well, exemplified by a montage of Santiago repeatedly falling in the mud during a particularly wet practice. Filmmakers turn to clichés because despite their overuse, they still carry emotional weight. Cannon demonstrates this during a scene in a locker room before the big match: as the music swells, the camera slowly pans to a shirt with Santiago’s last name on the back. I’ve seen moments like this in any number of sports films, yet I continue to feel excitement and anticipation in spite of myself.
What this film lacks, however, is an intelligible and instructive portrait of the game of soccer (or rather football, since much of the film takes place in England). Early in the movie, the head football coach asks Santiago what he plays, and Santiago replies “soccer.” The coach elaborates, “I mean what position do you play.” Yet in this film, “soccer” is about as deep as Cannon gets, avoiding entirely the details of positions and strategy beyond the concept of “passing.” Cannon overuses close-up shots on the soccer field, obscuring how each move fits in to the progress of the entire game. He shoots the football matches like a music video to maximize style but ends up minimizing coherence.
Goal! works, nevertheless, because the characters have heart and because the story perpetuates the incredibly powerful mythology of the American Dream: work hard and you will succeed. Stories about winners are seductive, and though Cannon pulls out every trick of his trade, he employs these tricks effectively. The sequel to Goal! will likely replay the structure and theme of the original, but audiences will buy tickets because sometimes, we just want to see the little engine that could make it up that hill. It makes us feel good, and sometimes that’s enough.

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