It’s 1977 in Wiggly, Georgia, and Christmas Flint (moppet extraordinaire Mckenna Grace) is pining for a purpose. The nine-year-old lives with her widower dad (Jim Gaffigan), who everyone calls “Boss Man,” in something like a rural, commune-like trailer park. She has a reputation around school as a weak-bladdered “Wetsy Betsy,” which doesn’t make her the most popular kid there. And like a lot of her fellow misfits — the Bowie–obsessed boy next door (Charlie Shotwell), the born-again Christian with an eyepatch (Bell Higginbotham), the bully (Milan Ray) who really has a heart of gold, and her thuggish muscle (Johanna Colón) — Christmas catches a lot of shit from the hoity-toity kids in town.
Then the girl hears about this project from a visiting NASA administrator. One lucky group of “Birdies” — think the Girl Scouts, but more twee — will win the chance to have their recorded voices beamed into the cosmos alongside Chuck Berry songs, for the benefit of any intelligent life listening out there. Christmas is ecstatic at the idea of talking to aliens. There’s just one catch: The local troop, led by the elitist Miss Massey (Allison Janney), won’t have a working-class bed-wetter in their ranks. What nerve! So Christmas starts her own gang of Birdies, stocked with other freaks and geeks and led by her dad’s employee, the tough yet tender Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis). They get dubbed “Troop Zero,” because there are no other numbers left. It’s supposed to be an insult. Our plucky, spunky heroine thinks it’s a badge of pride.
What we have here is a classic snobs-vs.-slobs type of standoff, an underdog tale slathered in Seventies Southern Gothic quirk from British directors Amber Finlayson and Katie Ellwood, who go by the joint nom de cineaste Bert & Bertie. If you’re already cringing over the duo’s handle, this movie is not for you. If you’re allergic to stories about kids running around the backwoods and who have names like Christmas, Hell-No and Smash, this movie is not for you (the playwright-screenwriter Lucy Alibar was also a co-writer on Beasts of the Southern Wild, which helps explain a few things). If you have an issue with any project that feels cobbled together from bits of Meatballs, Son of Rambow, Troop Beverly Hills, Little Miss Sunshine, and various Wes Anderson joints — and that feels it’s still acceptable to make a slo-mo Reservoir Dogs joke in the year of our lord 2020 — this movie is definitely not for you.
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So, pray tell, who is Troop Zero for? Well, if you’re the kind of person who knows that pairing Allison Janney’s brittle, chilly authoritarian act with Viola Davis’ take-no-shit righteousness will produce something worth watching regardless, you should check it out. (They make a great screen team, and someone needs to find them a Thelma and Louise-style outlaw flick, or a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes-and-Watson reboot stat. Anything but a sequel to The Help.) If you’re a fan of Edi Patterson, who shows up as the competition’s judge and easily walks away with the film’s second half, you should check it out — just go straight to the point where she solemnly says, “Knock-knock. Who’s there? The holy spirit.” And if you’re susceptible to a certain type of feel-good uplift, the kind that borders on pandering but still gets the job done, you should check it out. A person sits in a theater and thrills to a bunch of tweens pulling off a WTF musical number set to “Space Oddity,” and the critic must be honesst enough to admit that they are that person.
Or rather, a person sitting on their couch. Amazon Studios premiered Troop Zero at Sundance in 2019 and is now releasing it straight to its site, sans a theatrical run. This decision is less a display of lacking faith in the movie’s quality then it is a triumph of practicality. It is exactly the kind of movie that you might stumble across while browsing Amazon’s new-releases video list and go, “Oh, Viola Davis has a new movie out? Cool, I love her.” Click. And lo, an overly familiar, rather generic story of finding the moxie-fueled winner in all of us, etc., etc., washes over you and you do not even have to leave your living room. It is an innocuous, pleasant enough way to kill a few hours. That’s the worst thing you can say about it. It’s also, alas, the best thing you can say about it as well.