Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Rating: PG, 97 minutes.
Director: Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson (as Bert & Bertie)
Cast: Mckenna Grace, Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan, Allison Janney, Charlie Shotwell, Milan Ray, Johanna Colón, Bella Higginbotham and Mike Epps
As Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN quietly becomes a crowd-pleasing hit with a strong message about girl power, Amazon Prime quietly releases its own sweet and cozy story about girl power. TROOP ZERO is a fictional tale set in 1977’s rural Georgia about a precocious girl that has her head far above the clouds as she stares into the night sky, thinking about her mother and aliens.
The girl is Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace), and she’s not your typical nine-year-old. Christmas is pretty much a misfit, bounding with so much energy she’s liable to make contact with the outer limits. But she doesn’t feel limitless. Living on the poor side of town, Christmas gets picked on at school for rumors she wets the bed. Her widowed father, Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan), is a good-humored man but probably the worst person to call to defend you in a court of law. Viola Davis is Miss Rayleen, an underpaid assistant for Ramsey, and a woman whose tough exterior is about to crack from a life purloined by time and missed opportunities.
Fortunes change when a NASA representative makes his way to their small town to announce that the winners of the annual Jamboree of Birdie Scouts talent competition will have their voices recorded and included on the “Golden Record,” the gold-plated phonographic record containing sounds and images to be launched aboard the Voyager spacecraft. The possibility of having her voice transmitted is enough to make Christmas go over the moon with excitement.
Now comes the dilemma: Christmas isn’t exactly Birdie Scout troop material. And Miss Massey (Allison Janney as a persnickety Southern Belle) is the troop mom, and her bunch is the mean type that mock Christmas at school.
Welcome to Troop Zero. Our determined heroine recruits outcasts like Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), ostracized for his effeminate behavior; Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), a Jesus freak with one eye; and even the school bullies that the mean girls fear, Hell-No and Smash (Milan Ray and Johanna Colon). And troop leader is the begrudging Miss Rayleen.
Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote a poetically destitute tale of childhood optimism in 2012’s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, adapts her play “Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower” – which sounds like the first installment in a long-running series of Christmas Flint YA novels – with Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson (known collectively as Bert & Bertie) co-directing.
Simplified as TROOP ZERO, the movie is liable to lead you to the dentist’s office because it’s so syrupy. But it earns the cavities it causes. Its thin narrative is bolstered with a second act with the troop trying to earn badges in the areas of baking, survival skills, selling cookies, and even styling hair. Sprinkled in between the personal achievements are some good laughs, a little pathos (where Davis’s character has a nice, transformative arc), and small touches that will appeal to older audiences.
At one point, Christmas and the girls are walking in tandem in slow motion as George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” plays. That music drop has become synonymous with RESERVOIR DOGS. So to see it mirrored similarly brought a smile to my face. The soundtrack also incorporates the likes of Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and a certain “space oddity.”
TROOP ZERO is a quiet gem that has a lot to say about being persistent. The Christmas Flints of the world are out there with big ideas and bigger dreams. They may not all be scout material. They may be marginalized or viewed as oddballs, and that’s quite alright. Movies like this are a reminder that being weird is normal. So, take your protein pills and put your helmets on (and enjoy the fun).
TROOP ZERO is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.