Troop Zero uses the likability of its cast, offbeat dialogue, and a huge, beating heart to create a memorable and heartfelt film about not being forgotten.
Outside of Pixar and other award-winning animation canons, it becomes harder to find a truly great, live-action film rated PG in the 21st century. Most of the films featuring fantastic performances by children, including 2019’s young acting triumphs like Honey Boy and Jojo Rabbit, end up being geared towards adults. A middle ground remains, one between kids’ movies like John Cena’s Playing with Fire and Willem Dafoe’s The Florida Project. Directing team Bert & Bertie, along with writer Lucy Alibar, arrived into that empty space with the 2019 Sundance film turned Amazon streamer Troop Zero.
Troop Zero follows a group of young children, led by Mckenna Grace as Christmas Flint, as they create a Birdie Scouts group and compete in the big Jamboree for a chance to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record which will be sent out into space. Flint recruits her best friend Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), the school bully Hell-No (Milan Ray) and her enforcer Smash (Johanna Colón), and the local, one-eyed religious girl Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham). These misfits need a Troop Mama, and wannabe lawyer Miss Rayleen, played to the highest degree by Viola Davis, looks like the only option. Throw in Jim Gaffigan as boss man, widower, and Christmas’s father Ramsey Flint and Allison Janney as rival troop leader Miss Massey, and you’ve got yourself a stellar cast.
Bert & Bertie’s film hinges on a subject far beyond the years of its principal cast members: how we all want to be remembered or more importantly, how we don’t want to be forgotten. Christmas believes in extraterrestrial life, is fascinated by space, and is hoping that her mother turned into stars and comets and meteors after she died. The performances by all the stars maximize their minor roles, and every time you hear Gaffigan call himself or someone else “boss” as well as Davis call the girls “her boos”, you can’t stop the grin from forming on your face.
The script by Alibar looks like Moonrise Kingdom lite at one first glance, keeping the wistful and witty comedy, but trading romance for friendship. Collectively, the kids’ dialogue grows funnier with time, and the Southern-ness of the whole affair bleeds through, with everyone saying “funna” and Janey repeating “I’m playin’. I’m playin’.” A montage of each member earning their first Birdie badge, though sweet, actually becomes the weakest part of the story, a process we all have to go through in order to arrive at the big finale. Gaffigan gets a few chances to shine as he becomes the Troop Mama for a bit, and Davis does a lot with a little. In many ways, these two actors keep the film afloat as the kids struggle to stay on track.
At the Jamboree, the ragtag group of preteens are inseparable. Following Troop 5, the Regina George / Mean Girls personifiers, Troop Zero, which Christmas points out is the number of infinity, takes the stage, with Joseph dressed like David Bowie. Singing “Space Oddity”, the group takes turns going through the verses, dressed as planets, moons, aliens, and Christmas in a ship as an astronaut. After getting heckled and teased by the Birdie audience, Christmas wets herself on stage, causing the rest of Troop Zero to intentionally follow suit and finish the song in style. Solid gold indeed.
After losing the trophy and the Golden Record opportunity to Troop 5, the group with all their parents and troop mamas sit down on a park bench looking up at a star-filled sky. Christmas knows she’s not alone, but she still wants to be heard. The meteor shower mentioned earlier in the film comes and Christmas starts to talk to the sky. She is here. They are here. We are all here.
The impermanence of life stays at the center throughout the film. With little, quirky, charming Christmas at the center, this film finds meaning in the tiny moments and these tiny people. It states firmly that all of this matters, and that we are heard by those around us, and we hear them as well. Christmas lives up to her namesake. She sure is the boss and this film sure is special.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.