Do you want to help the most poor, struggling fools on the Earth? After watching “Troop Zero,” a family film released from Amazon studios on Jan. 17, this author can only say – very hesitantly – maybe.
The question is posed by Christmas Flint, a misfit, outer-space-obsessed little girl with a home haircut from 1977 Georgia, played by McKenna Grace. Christmas and her best friend, the flamboyant Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), are running around their town, stompin’ in their boots, trying to recruit enough members to start their own Birdie Scout troop.
After being chased into a tree by the local “tax collectors” and bullies, Hell-No (Milan Ray) and Smash (Johanna Colon), Christmas and Joseph overhear a man from NASA tell the existing local Birdie Troop that the prize for this year’s Jamboree is to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, a vinyl aboard The Voyager that will carry messages into space. Christmas is determined to make a connection with the aliens, but the current Birdie Troops chop off her braids and shove her in a locker. Christmas doesn’t miss a beat, and after being released from the locker runs to the library and reads up on Birdie Scout rules. She only needs three recruits, a “troop mama” and a badge each to be eligible for Jamboree.
Grace is excellent as Christmas, exuding that quirky, carefree “I’m weird and I don’t care who knows it” energy that only children can have. She’s heartfelt and endearing as she lays on her deck with a metal strainer on her head, describing how her mother, now dead, used to tell her all about space and sending messages into the universe. She’s messy, cute and absolutely believable in every line she delivers throughout the movie. And her rag tag group of trailer park kids doesn’t disappoint, either.
Joseph, who lives for hair styling and loathes football, is supportive and sweet – the perfect “boy best friend” commonly found in movies starring bold little girls (“Ramona and Beezus” comes to mind.) Then there’s Anne-Claire, missing an eye and clutching a cross, Hell-No and Smash.
The group bands together, overcoming the odds, facing adversity under the leadership of Most-Unlikely-To-Be-But-The-Only-Character-Who-Could-Be “Troop Mama” Miss Rayleen, played by Viola Davis. Christmas’ dad (Jim Gaffigan) known as “Boss Man,” tells Miss Rayleen to cut her secretarial hours at his going-broke law firm to two days a week, paying her to be their troop leader. Miss Rayleen steps up to the challenge, strutting down the street in her bellbottomed jeans alongside her little yellow “boos.”
After selling cookies, styling hair, smashing and repairing radios, running an obstacle course, spending the night outdoors and finding a substitute Troop Mama (hello, Boss Man), the troop makes it to Jamboree. (Miss Rayleen couldn’t be the troop leader, it was revealed in a weirdly emotional and specific scene, because she had been arrested previously. The other troop leader in town Miss Massey (Allison Janney), who plays the perfect out of touch, drink in hand but not so bad villain (Oh Miss Hannigan!), had discovered the policy in the Birdie Scout Rulebook the night previous.)
We finally get to Jamboree, and it’s time to compete. Troop Zero gets on stage and begins performing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” complete with handmaid costumes, singing and a rocket ship.
Ground control to Major Tom: This is where the movie took a weird turn.
No other troops had sung, so to start things off Joseph belting out Bowie felt embarrassing and strange. The other troops in the audience were far too loud and far too mean to believable. And then the man from NASA bursts through the tent just in time to see Christmas appear from inside the rocket—I was under the impression that the NASA man was in charge of the prize, why hadn’t he been there the whole time? But the worst was yet to come, as Christmas who is bullied for being a “bed wetter,” (something that started after the passing of her mother), pees on the stage. I felt bad for Christmas and wanted an adult to intervene, but instead Troop Zero starts singing one by one, standing next to Christmas while – and this is where they lost my sympathy – peeing on the stage.
If it’s any surprise, reader, Troop Zero did not win Jamboree. Instead, Christmas gained lifelong friends and finally got some closure about her mother. It turns out she was so obsessed with space because Boss Man said her mother turned into a star when she died. Good one, Dad. There is reconciliation between Troop Mamas Miss Rayleen and Miss Massey, Miss Rayleen is going to law school (yeehaw!) and there is a meteor shower. Kumbaya, indeed.
The acting and script is, for the most part, well done. But there are a few scenes that are incredibly forced. For example, the kid called “Hell-no” starts speaking like a child psychologist as she describes why she wants to bully and destroy everything around her. She has no parents in sight, spends her time tormenting other children, but apparently is so self-aware that she understands her self-destructive tendencies, destroying beauty because she doesn’t have any beauty in her life. Before Jamboree, she also asks Christmas why she made her “want it so badly” when she never wanted anything. This, too, felt oddly introspective coming from the neighborhood tax collector whose best friend Smash doesn’t speak.
Despite its flaws, the movie was charming and beautifully filmed with unique angles, extreme wide shots, clever staging and a carefully curated color palette in every scene, as per usual with Amazon Studios. The movie felt nostalgic and retro from the costumes, to the setting, to the soundtrack.
Overall, it was a feel-good, family film with a creative aesthetic and excellent acting but a script that could’ve been better. This movie had all the elements of a classic coming-of-age tale: a spunky lead, unlikely friends, an out of touch parent, an adult who discovers themselves while helping others and a loss that leads to self-revelation for all.
But we can’t forget: All the children peed on the stage in succession. Do you want to help the most poor, struggling fools on the Earth? Well, I did—I liked you guys, I was rooting for you. But choreographed peeing on stages is weird.