Film Review: ‘Troop Zero’

Andrew Barker

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You’ve probably seen a version of “Troop Zero” before. Whether that version was called “Troop Beverly Hills,” “The Mighty Ducks,” or an edited-for-TV showing of “The Bad News Bears,” it’s unlikely that anything here will be particularly fresh to anyone but the youngest of viewers. But novelty does not appear to have been high on the filmmakers’ priorities. An aggressively whimsical, ‘70s-set family comedy about a misfit group of off-brand Girl Scouts, directing duo Bert & Bertie’s crowdpleaser neither reinvents the wheel nor even attempts to redesign it all that much, but at least it gets where it wants to go, thanks in no small part to the work of Allison Janney, Viola Davis, and young actor Mckenna Grace.

Say this much for “Troop Zero,” which premiered at Sundance in 2019 and hits Amazon streaming this weekend: in spite of its relentless insistence on steering the plot exactly where you think it’s going, it does manage to craft a distinctive heroine. On first glance, to be sure, nine-year-old Christmas Flint (Grace) seems to have sprung fully formed from a Sundance lab. Relentlessly perky in spite of (or perhaps in response to) her mother’s recent death, she’s the oddest of oddballs in her rural Georgia town, eternally clad in ill-fitting red rain boots, prone to bed-wetting incidents, and obsessed with extraterrestrials. She scampers through the calamitous home office of her bedraggled lawyer father (Jim Gaffigan), tries to ingratiate herself with her dad’s lone employee – the dyspeptic, chain-smoking Rayleen (Davis) – and mostly hangs around with her David Bowie-obsessed, aspiring hairdresser guy pal Joseph (Charlie Shotwell).

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Christmas finds herself a new mission in life when she overhears a visiting representative of NASA, in town to inform the local Birdie Scout troop that the winners of that year’s Jamboree talent show will have their voices featured on the “golden record” to be sent into deep space aboard Voyager 1. Given the cold shoulder by the one troop in town – and little sympathy from its leader, a walking “bless her heart” named Miss Massey (Janney) – Christmas starts rounding up the rest of the town’s outcasts to form her own group, including Joseph (as the Birdie Scouts’ bylaws never specify any gender requirements), a secretly good-hearted bully named Hell-No (Milan Ray), her hulking henchgirl Smash (Johanna Colon), and a meek evangelical Christian (Bella Higginbotham). Rayleen is unwillingly recruited as den mother.

Portrayed with great spark and endearing awkwardness by Grace – who never sands down the edges of her character’s oddness, nor plays her underlying grief for cheap pathos – Christmas quickly emerges as a genuinely unique character, and her obsession with the Voyager mission is just specific enough to be believable. It’s in these little details that one most clearly sees the hand of screenwriter Lucy Alibar – here making her first feature since breaking out with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – and while Christmas hardly seems likely to make as big a splash as Quvenzhané Wallis’ Hushpuppy, Grace is a comparably magnetic young performer.

It’s a good thing that she is, as the film’s weaker middle section sees the troop tasked with earning enough merit badges to qualify for the Jamboree, and here it lurches from uninspired moments of self-actualization (as the scouts bond and each experience some minor triumph, hastily sketched) to style-heavy interludes (a slow-motion food fight, an out-of-nowhere “Reservoir Dogs” homage) that never quite jibe with the tone of the surrounding film. The shadow of Wes Anderson hangs heavy over this stretch, as the directors often push the film’s ramshackle quirk and enforced good cheer well past the breaking point. For example, Gaffigan’s slovenly, extravagantly-toupeed, beer-can-chicken-roasting lawyer has been given more than enough stray idiosyncrasies without also inexplicably requiring him to be chewing on an old toothbrush in half of his scenes, and nearly all the supporting characters are wearing at least one piece of flair too many.

There are pleasures to be found, however, in the tête-à-têtes between Davis and Janney, whose characters slowly reveal a shared history, as well as the not-quite-naturalistic but still refreshingly rusted and dirty touches that production designer Laura Fox gives to the fictional small town. By the time the film arrives at its talent show climax, it openly cribs from both “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Billy Madison,” but its message hits home nonetheless: a fitting end for a movie that’s content to make do with whatever spare parts are lying around, and eventually does so more successfully than one might expect.

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