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Schultz reviews: ‘Troop Zero’

Schultz reviews: ‘Troop Zero’

Carl Schultz

 

Troop Zero  Distributed by Amazon Studios, 94 Minutes, Rated PG, Streaming on Amazon Prime since Jan. 17:

 

Realistic characters, charismatic performances, and a wholesomely subversive attitude are among the strengths of “Troop Zero,” the quirky new family comedy from Amazon Studios now streaming on the Amazon Prime Video website.

 

In “Troop Zero,” intelligent, solitary, and unpopular 11-year-old Christmas Flint, living with her widower dad in a trailer park in rural small town Wiggly, Georgia, in 1977, has a strong interest in space travel and aliens, believing her late mother might still exist somewhere in the cosmos. When Christmas learns of an opportunity for an individual to record their voice on NASA’s outer space-bound Voyager Golden Record, she perceives a possible last chance to leave a message for her departed mom.

 

But in order to win the rarefied Golden Record opportunity, Christmas needs to be a member of the winning team of the annual Birdie Scouts talent show. Spurned for membership by the more popular girls of the local chapter (who advise Christmas they’re “at the top and you’re at the bottom — that’s just how we was made”) the resourceful little girl decides to organize a group of misfits and outcast children like herself into a separate Birdie Scout troop, win the talent show, and earn the chance to send their voices into the cosmos.

 

Adapted by playwright Lucy Alibar from her 2010 play “Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower” and directed in their feature debut by the pseudonymous filmmaking team of Bert & Bertie, “Troop Zero” manages to achieve, and maintain, a charmingly off-kilter quality that’s unique among contemporary family comedies. Reminiscent of Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby” stories combined with the popular 1991 comedy “Fried Green Tomatoes,” the picture swiftly manages to establish a sort of ramshackle grace not unlike, say, a Disney picture from the 1960s reimagined by Tim Burton, but without Burton’s trademark darkness.

 

“Troop Zero” benefits greatly from strong supporting performances from comedian and writer Jim Gaffigan as Christmas’ supportive and loving but distracted widower dad the Boss Man, a local attorney who seems to represent only small-time career criminals, the top-billed Viola Davis as Miss Rayleen, the Boss Man’s no-nonsense legal secretary who Christmas cajoles into acting as their troop leader, and the underused Allison Janney as Miss Massey, the haughty leader of the rival Birdie Scout troop ... who also happens to be a secret tippler. That Miss Rayleen and Miss Massey have a long-festering personal issue adds a subtest to their unexpected rivalry.

 

But the real anchor of “Troop Zero” is the veteran child thespian McKenna Grace as 11-year-old Christmas Flint. With a soulfully sunny but occasionally mordant demeanor and big sad eyes that made her somewhat resemble a younger and slightly more dowdy Britney Spears, the 13-year-old Grace contributes a gently evocative performance that achieves not only laughter, spirit, and pathos ... but even some inspiration. It’s a role which compliments the young actress’ impressive professional credentials, which now include supporting performances in such box office hits as 2017’s Academy Award-nominated “I, Tonya” and 2019’s blockbuster “Captain Marvel,” as well as star turns in 2017’s “Gifted” and last year’s “Annabelle Comes Home.”

 

Gazing at the nighttime skies and whispering to any random aliens who might be listening, “I think you’d like me — I think you’d want to be my friend,” Grace as Christmas manages to voice the sentiment as a flat statement of fact, suggesting the solitary child’s loneliness without relying upon maudlin self-pity, or expecting sympathy from the viewer. That’s a rare quality, no matter the age of the performer.

 

As 2010’s “Ramona and Beezus” captured the insatiable curiosity and rambunctious imagination of children — and the occasionally disastrous results of a questing nature — ”Troop Zero” is a picture that recognizes and acknowledges the unfailingly sunny dispositions and sweetly optimistic nature of children. The kids of Troop Zero at heart are rugged individualists, expecting to win on their own terms, without compromise or exception. A disadvantaged child will note his limitations and move on, and a child ostracized by some will invariably find friendship elsewhere. Such children are different only in the eyes of others.

 

“Troop Zero” is one movie that recognizes, and celebrates, that essential, elemental human trait. Let’s face it — we’ve all seen this basic plot before, not once but many, many times, in other family comedies. But in the hands of these talented filmmakers and this wonderful cast, the premise and the characters all seem new again ... and absolutely delightful.

 

The picture is earning praise from the critics, including an approval rating of 68% from Rotten Tomatoes against a weighted average score of 59% from Metacritic. The Rotten Tomatoes site notes that “Thanks to a charming cast and infectious energy, ‘Troop Zero’ is more than a sum of its instantly familiar parts.”

 

Filmed in and around rural Luling and Lafayette, Louisiana, the picture had its world premiere on Feb. 1 at the influential Sundance Film Festival, and was purchased for release by the Amazon Studios. “Troop Zero” is the first independent feature film from the studio to bypass theaters for release streaming only on the Amazon Prime Video website.

 

“Troop Zero” is rated PG for thematic elements, some language concerns, and smoking throughout.

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