Film Review – Troop Zero
Troop Zero (2020) is so sugary sweet that it should come with a health warning. There are moments where the sentimentality is so abundant that Steven Spielberg may think to himself, “Ok, this might be too much.” But beneath the cutesy exterior lies a message that is unavoidably necessary: loving one’s self. Sometimes we get so caught up in the expectations and standards that society has placed on us that we tend to forget that self-worth is what’s most important. It’s hard to love one another if we can’t first love ourselves.
The story may be set in 1970s Georgia, but the themes have a modern feel. We meet Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), a precocious young girl who dreams of space and meeting life from other planets. She learns that a scout troupe (known as the “Birdie Scouts”) is holding a national talent show, where the winner will get to record a message on NASA’s Golden Record – a vinyl that will be shot out into space in hopes of being discovered by alien beings. Christmas makes it her sole mission to create a makeshift troupe and enter the competition. Standing in her way is Miss Massey (Allison Janney) the leader of the local Birdie Scout branch. Massey’s archaic idea of a “good Birdie” is one who studies to become an obedient housewife.
Writer Lucy Alibar and co-directors Amber Templemore-Finlayson and Katie Ellwood (credited as “Bert & Bertie”) fashion Troop Zero with characters that are quirky and eccentric, and that’s precisely why they are so interesting. Christmas and her newly found friends go against the grain of what “proper girls” are supposed to be. Some of them aren’t even girls at all. Joseph (Charlie Shotwell) is a young boy who hates sports and loves singing showtunes and styling hair. Hell-no (Milan Ray) is a tough talker who doesn’t take gruff from anybody, with Smash (Johanna Colon) playing like her hired muscle. And Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham) has a missing eye, and therefore doesn’t fall into the beauty standards of other Birdie Scouts. They each have their personal traits, and thankfully the writing and directing treat them as qualities instead of detriments.
Viola Davis plays Miss Rayleen, a legal assistant who dreamed of practicing law but did not follow through. She ends up becoming the troupe’s leader. Among the adult performances, Davis stands out from the rest. Not just because she has more scenes and dialogue than anyone else, but how she fills Miss Rayleen with life and nuance. She balances her compassion for the kids and the disappointment of not pursuing her passions equally well, creating a fully dimensional character. Miss Rayleen does turn into a surrogate mother for the troupe, and the way she defends them against Miss Massey’s snide remarks or the ridicule of other Birdie Scouts shows how much she cares for them.
Lucy Alibar’s previous screenplay was for the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Both Beasts and Troop Zero share similar qualities, particularly in the back wood, rural setting. These are characters that inhabit the fringes of society, where trailer homes reside among tall fields with rusty old factories masquerading as a city skyline. And just like Beasts, Troop Zero never looks down upon these people as though they are victims of some poor squalor. These are warm, caring families that make best with what they have. The forests and swamps operate as playgrounds, with hollowed out buildings and vehicles becoming places where a child’s imagination can work wonders. As much as Christmas and her friends are aware of the kind of world they live in, not once do they allow it to define who they are.
The narrative plays out as we would expect it to, with the troupe slowly earning their badges so they can qualify to participate in the talent show. Sadly, the way the final act unfolds counteracts how well everything was going up to at that point. How things finally resolve is consistent with the themes, but it’s the specific choices that fall apart. I’m all for characters learning that human relationships far outweigh the importance of material possessions, but the way Alibar and Bert & Bertie execute the final sequences was so cringe-worthy that it was kind of hard to watch. Not to mention the closing scene, in which the schmaltz and soppiness are layered on so thick that I started to wonder if it was earnest or if there was some sort of tongue-in-cheek satire going on.
Troop Zero has a strong, positive lesson that is important and necessary to learn. This would be a good movie for parents to show their kids. Heck, let’s not fool ourselves: parents can get something out of it too. Is it a bit too mushy for its own good? Sure. But the earnestness of the material make it worth a watch. Sometimes the simplest lessons are also the best.