Sundance Review: ‘Troop Zero’

Rating: 2.5/4

Directors Bert & Bertie‘s Troop Zero — the second feature film of their partnership — is an odd, yet simple film. NASA wants to make a gold record of messages from earth, and are holding a contest. A tom-boyish girl obsessed with space desperately dreams of her voice traveling the universe. This girl must clear small, yet mighty obstacles for her hopes to come true. A coming-of-age story that could easily fit in a Little Miss Sunshine cinematic web, Troop Zero is a film made for the misfits, the outcasts, and the dreamers — and will leave you floating to the stars.

The film opens on a shaky note, with some questionable CGI of space that slowly and the quickly zooms into Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace)’s corner of the universe. Christmas is consumed by space, the stars, and the planets — comforted by her now deceased mother’s belief that just by talking the universe can hear us, and conversely — even in death — the two can communicate. Christmas’ father: Ramsay (Jim Gaffigan) — is a lawyer who’s behind on bills because none of his clients will pay him. Christmas is a clumsy outsider (one of her legs is slightly shorter than the other), known for and bullied because she wets herself.

It’s not until NASA scientists visit her Wiggly, Georgia town to tell of their plan to send a gold disc into space, recorded with the voice of the Birdie Scout Jamboree talent contest winner, that she considers joining any organization or puts herself out there to make new friends. However, Miss Massey (Allison Janney)’s Troop isn’t looking for any new recruits. No, her Troop matches Miss Massey in their upper-crust superiority.

Instead, Christmas must form a brand new Troop. She recruits her father’s employee Miss Raylen (Viola Davis), a quick-witted paralegal who hates kids, to be her Troop Mama. She also volunteers her one friend: Joseph (Charlie Shotwell) — a non-gender conformer, and a motley crew of characters like, Hell-No (Milan Ray), Smash (Johanna Colón), and Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham) to each earn one merit badge in a special skill so they can qualify for the Jamboree.

One of the Troop’s many setbacks doesn’t feel like a setback at all, unfortunately. Basically — through a confrontation with Miss Massey’s girls — Troop Zero is suspended. The issue? Well, what “suspended” means is never defined. And since there are no real consequences that occur afterwards, the sequence becomes superfluous and disrupts the emotional momentum of the film. While a film doesn’t have to make logical sense, it should always make emotional sense. Also, Mike Epps as Dwayne Boudraux: a shady but lovable associate of Ramsay — feels wasted through 95% of the film.

Though Davis’ character is also thinly sketched, she surprisingly steals the show with her comedic chops. Seriously, with a no-nonsense stare, she finds a deadpan sarcasm that continually hits. Janney, in her first feature follow up to her Oscar winning performance in I, Tonya, also displays a deft wit and Southern charm. And Mckenna Grace, after appearing in I, Tonya and soon-to-be in Captain Marvel, is proving to be a rising star. Especially here, where she finds a truthful and innate performance.

Even with some writing missteps in Troop Zero‘s screenplay, when Miss Raylen’s group finally does arrive at the Jamboree, the Troop’s performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (would it be any other song) crosses the line between sincere and campy, and saccharine — yet discovers a manageable and touching balance. And as the children are literally left shouting to the sky: screaming “I’M HERE” — the emotional tug, even in an admittedly flawed film, will be more than most can overcome and causing Troop Zero to steal your heart away to the stars.  

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