It only happens a few times a year.
I fall in love.
No, silly. Not with people. That happens all the time. I fall madly in love with people all the time.
I'm talking about cinema. I'm talking about the kind of movie magic where you sit back and you laugh and you cry and you find yourself so immersed in the cinematic world created that you fall in love.
It only happens a few times a year.
I fell in love with Troop Zero, a cinematic creation so unabashedly sentimental and so relentlessly life-affirming that as the closing credits were scrolling by I found myself wanting to watch it all over again.
So, I did.
I'm a film journalist and supposedly I'm not supposed to get so emotionally attached to a film, but Troop Zero does everything I want a movie to do and it does it over and over and over again.
As a film critic, sometimes you have to set aside your critical lens and place it on the backburner. You have to remember what it's like for the ordinary everyday moviegoer who simply wants to escape into another world for a little while and laugh or cry or release or immerse or heal or love.
As a film critic, sometimes you have to remind yourself that your first responsibility is to the film and not to the criticism.
Christmas Flint is a beautiful young girl with whom you will fall in love from the opening moments that Rob Lord's celebratory original score fills the screen. Mckenna Grace's performance dazzles with a sentimentality and an electricity that makes you feel good every single time she speaks. Christmas is in love with space, her nights spent looking up at the stars convinced there's something bigger out there in the universe with which she's determined to connect. Christmas's curiosity is borne out of a natural intelligence but also a quiet grief and longing for the mother who left her behind with her well-meaning but distracted father Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan), whose smalltown lawyering ways often include the likes of accepting a basket of avocados for payment much to the frustration of his perpetually underpaid assistant Rayleen (Viola Davis).
Troop Zero is yet the latest film to live within the world of cinematic misfits, geeks, bedwetters, and oddballs. You will unquestionably think of Little Miss Sunshine, with which the film shares both a Sundance pedigree and a writer, the sublimely gifted Lucy Alibar. You may also find yourself thinking about Troop Beverly Hills, while in some ways I even found myself reflecting upon one of my most beloved films, Lars and the Real Girl. Troop Zero is a relentlessly sincere film, easily the year's first true crowdpleasing film, and what really makes the film soar is that the entire ensemble cast taps into that sincerity and plays it for all its worth.
In the film, Christmas learns that NASA is sponsoring a grand prize for the statewide Birdie Scout Jamboree, a gathering of not quite Girl Scout types being raised to be genteel and prim and proper.
In case you're wondering, Christmas is not genteel or prim or proper. She's also not a Birdie Scout, but inspired by the chance to get her voice on a record that NASA is creating for the upcoming Voyager missions, based on a real project, Christmas puts together a rather motley crew of the young misfits of Wiggly, Georgia and they turn themselves into the appropriately named Troop Zero despite the fierce reservations of Wiggly's established Troop 5 leader and school principal, Miss Massey (Allison Janney), whose entire persona reads loudly "I'm going to live vicariously through you."
Troop Zero includes the school's bully, not so affectionately known as Hell-No (Milan Ray), her bullying muscle named Smash (Johanna Colon), the timid one-eyed evangelical Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham) and, yes, Christmas's BFF Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), whose fabulous flamboyance lets you know that an abundance of cliche's are soon to follow yet who ends up so completely embraced that I found myself quietly sobbing by film's end.
To be fair, a good amount of what unfolds in Troop Zero is completely and utterly predictable, though Alibar's script is so filled with earnest goodness and balls to the walls misfit affirmation and pro-female messaging that I never for a single moment was bothered by the fact that I knew for most of the film's just over 90-minute running time exactly what was going to happen. Alibar does twist it up a bit once we arrive at the anticipated jamboree, though again the film's closing 20-30 minutes so dripping with sweetness and sincerity and resolution that you might even find yourself embracing the film's biggest baddie, Janney's Miss Massey, who doesn't really want to be that nasty.
Troop Zero is the kind of film that so often drowns in its predictability and earnestness. It's the kind of film that a lot of actors take as a paycheck film, yet Troop Zero is anything but a paycheck film.
Mckenna Grace, who came to fame in such films as Gifted and I, Tonya, does her best work to date here. She infuses Christmas with such aching honesty yet unbridled intelligence that you simply can't stop watching her when she's on the screen. It's a magnificent performance that sets the tone for everyone else.
Speaking of best ever performances, Jim Gaffigan is revelatory here as Christmas's father, who clearly never imagined himself as a single dad yet whose love for his daughter is never questioned even as he keeps bumbling and fumbling. While Gaffigan has done some cinematic stretching recently, most notably with mixed success in last year's Being Frank, Gaffigan clearly defines himself as an actor here with a performance that completely drops his usual shtick yet is still filled to the brim with heart, humor, and surprising depth.
Of course, it's no surprise that Viola Davis hits a grand slam. Does she ever not hit a grand slam? Davis, who also is a producer on the film, steps up to the plate like she's Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears, a unique combination of something resembling maternal instincts and also quietly claiming her own identity through it all. It's also no surprise that Oscar winner Allison Janney is an absolute gem here, adding layers of complexity to the kind of role that usually only hits one note.
The entire ensemble cast is strong and, for the most part, given their own moments to shine. Milan Ray avoids caricature as Hell-No, embracing the ways in which Alibar's script lets her grow and stretch. Johanna Colon is a hoot as Smash, though she captures our heart in one particular scene where we learn there's more to Smash than simply smashing. Bella Higginbotham shines as Anne-Claire, whose role could have so easily been played for laughs at the expense of the character yet who ends up just as equally embraced as everyone else.
Then, there's the delightful Charlie Shotwell. Shotwell, whose stock really rose after his role in Captain Fantastic, gives an impeccable performance as Joseph, who tries to live up to the ways of his football playing father (Kenneth Wayne Bradley) but who is clearly more comfortable in the worlds of fashion and dance alongside his often cruelly bullied BFF Christmas. The character who most kept reminding me of Lars and the Real Girl, Shotwell's Joseph may flamboyantly live into every stereotype but he does so with such freedom and honesty that by the end of the film you desperately want him to be happy and his father to embrace it all.
Co-directed by the British filmmaking duo of Bert & Bertie, Troop Zero is the kind of film that many critics love to bash because of its abundance of good cheer and perpetual predictability. Bert & Bertie have, on the other hand, created exactly the film that Troop Zero is meant to be, an intelligent and beautifully spirited work of movie magic and wonder that celebrates friendship, diversity, dreams, and the healing power of our own little tribes. Troop Zero never winks - it is fiercely dedicated to is pro-community, pro-girl, pro-STEM, and pro-hope messages. Bert & Bertie never compromise and, as a result, have created the first film of 2020 that truly matters for children and adults of all ages.
With a score from Rob Lord that sounds like smalltown twang meets universal symphony, Troop Zero is further gifted by one of early 2020's best accompanying soundtracks and some perfectly utilized David Bowie of which I'm 100% sure Bowie himself would approve.
After its premiere at Sundance, Troop Zero is now available to check out for yourself on Amazon Prime. Just for fun, as the opening credits are rolling you should shout out "I'm here." I promise that by film's end you'll understand and your heart will smile.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic