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More than underdog movies? Trans and non-binary athletes on film in 2023

Sports films featuring LGBTQ characters are emerging, and we’re here for all of it

“Next Goal Wins” Charity Special Preview Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images for Disney

This year has seen a number of LGBTQ sports films — “Nyad,” “Cassandro,” “Next Goal Wins” — use real people’s stories ato highlight the contributions of queer heroes and their place in sports history.

While athlete biopics seem to be an inescapable trend of the year, there is some diversity in the fare on offer. Though, as Hollywood often does, one pair of twin films has coincided in their release this year to give us something to compare and reflect on how filmmakers have tackled trans and non-binary sporting issues on screen: the wide release “Next Goal Wins,” as well as indie flick “Warrior Strong.”

The latter movie, a Canadian drama centered around a scrappy high school basketball team, at first glance has little in common with Marvel darling Taika Waititi’s festival hit (or miss) based on the true story of American Samoa’s bid to at long last score a goal for their nation at the World Cup qualifiers, though the films share more than just a common thread or two.

“Next Goal Wins” protagonist Thomas Rongen is a soccer coach well past his glory days who takes on the undesirable job of flying to a remote Pacific island to make something of the world’s worst soccer team and in doing so get his own career back on track.

In “Warrior Strong,” Bilal Irving is an NBA player fallen from grace who accepts a job coaching his former high school’s basketball team to rehab his image and ingratiate himself back into the pro league.

In both movies, of course, the real championship title is the friends we made along the way.

These are the time tested tropes of sports movies we know and love, and so we can forgive a bit of paint-by-numbers heartstring-tugging. After all, when every game must have a winner and a loser, there are only so many ways a plot can play out.

What makes these two films unique is prominent roles played by trans and non-binary characters on their respective teams, particularly in a year when when the very inclusion of such athletes is under legislative and policy attack from the professional level through youth sports.

Jaiyah Saelua of “Next Goal Wins” is fa’afafine and the first out trans player in international soccer, in the film taking on a linchpin leadership role within her team to do the impossible and notch a win for her nation.

The fictional Bettina Wannamaker of “Warrior Strong” is a non-binary basketball savant who overcomes their fear of not being accepted as a player within the gender segregation of high school sports, making the assist to lead their team to a down-to-the-wire victory.

In a cynical sense, both Jaiyah and Bettina serve a certain function within their stories to soften the hardened defenses of the protagonist head coaches, who in turn act as surrogates for the median cisgender viewer to learn something about accepting people different from themselves, à la a very special episode.

Then again, in a non-cynical sense — and who am I to be writing this here if not a bleeding heart romantic about sport — both characters are played with such care by actors Kaimana and Macaulee Cassaday that it’s difficult to be anything but admiring of the way they brought their roles to life.

They bring hope for what this new trend represents for how LGBTQ characters and their struggles are represented on screen.

I’ve avoided using the r-word (representation), which can often dilute an analysis of certain stories down to the bare-bones understanding and misunderstanding of identity politics, an oversimplified Siskelian and/or Ebertian thumbs-up or -down on “good representation” or “bad representation.”

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Reductive as it may feel for me to opine on whether trans and non-binary communities are well served by these fictional and fictionalized characters, it’s more interesting to look behind the camera at who is heading these film projects.

While Polynesian and North American Indigenous communities are (in some respects) worlds away, it’s notable that both “Next Goal Wins” and “Warrior Strong” tell the stories of largely or wholly Indigenous teams and are backed by Māori creator Taika Waititi and Métis director Shane Belcourt respectively.

That both films center the experiences and traditions of Indigenous communities in relation to sport is a real point of interest here that makes it feel less intrusively didactical to delve into relationships between gender and athletics.

Rather than looking at the topic of gender-diverse players through the lens of the faddish manufactured outrage around trans inclusion in sport in 2023, these films take a step back from the expectations and impositions of white settler norms around gender roles and the ways we segregate sport accordingly.

Jaiyah Saelua is a novelty to the character of Thomas Rongen, but neither her belonging with the squad nor her gender identity is questioned by her teammates.

Bettina Wannamaker faces some disparaging language in the heat of a fight with one of their fellow students, but is ultimately embraced by the team in their progression from equipment manager to player.

Neither of these movies attempt to conjure up a perfect world without adversity or clumsiness. What they do do however is allow space for their trans and non-binary characters to be a fixture of their communities without their gender being the constant focus. Their leadership manifests on the pitch and on the court, but it also extends to how they support others in their daily lives and how they in turn are supported themselves.

“Ogijita (Warriors) is when you go into the community and you put everyone else’s needs before your own,” Dumont high school principal Jules, played by Sarah Podemski, emphasizes in “Warrior Strong.”

As we look toward the future movie landscape for LGBTQ sports movies, Waititi and Belcourt may be just the start of a wider trend of seeing more trans and non-binary characters brought to the big screen by Indigenous creators.

Hopefully, we’ll see more and more nuanced portrayals of athlete experiences in the coming year – or at the very least no sequel to “Lady Ballers.”