“TROOP ZERO” — 3½ stars — Mckenna Grace, Allison Janney, Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan; PG (thematic elements, language and smoking throughout); Sundance Film Festival
“Troop Zero” is an adorable gem of a movie — the kind that makes all the craziness and hassle of navigating Sundance worth the effort.
Helmed by British directing team Bert and Bertie and featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Troop Zero” follows a misfit team of preteen underdogs as they vie for the right to send their voices into outer space.
The team leader is Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), the daughter of a small-town Georgia defense attorney named Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan). She and Ramsey live in his hybrid office-trailer home, hosting a never-ending line of clients who always seem to be guilty, and never seem to pay their counsel.
Set in the late 1970s, “Troop Zero” takes place around the time NASA was preparing to send the Voyager probe out into the cosmos, armed with a gold record full of recordings to introduce alien life to the best of humankind.
Christmas is obsessed with outer space, always hanging out in the woods staring up at the stars or watching “The Outer Limits” reruns on TV. So when she hears NASA will be attending the upcoming Birdie Scout Jamboree in search of a troop to record a message for the record, she knows destiny has arrived.
The only trouble: Christmas is not a Birdie Scout, and the local troop, led by the hoity-toity school principal Miss Massey (Allison Janney), won’t have her. So Christmas puts together her own troop, recruiting her best friend (Charlie Shotwell) and a one-eyed Christian (Bella Higginbotham), as well as the school bully (Milan Ray) and her feral sidekick (Johanna Colon). Ever the doting father, Ramsey connives his clerk Rayleen (Viola Davis) to act as Troop Mom.
The mission is simple: As long as each scout earns a badge, the troop can enter the Jamboree and compete to get on the gold record. So Rayleen sets out to match each scout to some sort of skill set, and as the girls try to sell cookies, bake cakes and survive in the wilderness, hijinks follow.
In the meantime, Miss Massey and her own troop are determined to keep Christmas and her fellow “trash” from succeeding, even digging into Rayleen’s past to find a way to keep Troop Zero — so named because that was the only troop number available — from sullying the good name of the Birdie Scouts.
“Troop Zero” follows a charming if mostly predictable underdog formula until the third act, which offers some real surprises and a home run of a finale that goes straight for the heart.Comment on this story
The humor is cute and constant, anchored by veteran performances from Janney, Davis and Gaffigan. But the kids are the real stars in this one — especially Grace, who completely disappears into her spunky, wide-eyed character, and Higginbotham, who defies easy stereotypes.
It’s always nice when an underdog movie like this can match a big heart with some real quality production. Everyone can use a boost in February, but “Troop Zero” — which should shortly be available on Amazon Prime — will cheer you up most any time of year.
Rating explained: Troop Zero” is rated PG for some scattered profanity and some crude and vulgar humor involving flatulence and other bodily functions.