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A kid-centric underdog tale set in drawly 1977 Georgia, Troop Zero wouldn’t be much more sticky-sweet if you poured a can of Coca-Cola on it. The film, directed by a pair of women who call themselves Bert & Bertie, centers on a child played by Mckenna Grace but is made whole by Viola Davis, whose gruff embodiment of a kid-wary adult is an essential counterweight to the cuteness surrounding her. Likely to divide auds on the festival circuit, it should be more warmly welcomed in family-oriented settings.
Grace plays the wince-inducingly named Christmas Flint, a spunky 9-year-old with blonde pigtails and an obsession with outer space — where she believes, or at least hopes, her dead mother lives on. Picked on by schoolmates because she wets the bed (she doesn’t, she swears), her only friend is neighbor Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), who is more in touch with his feminine side than was generally allowed in the real-world version of ’70s rural Georgia.
Christmas fixates on the idea of sending messages out to whatever beings might exist in deep space. When she learns that NASA is recording everyday people for a record it will send off with the Voyager spacecraft — and that some local kids will be part of that project — she can barely contain herself. (Actually, that’s true most of the time. Grace spends much of the film’s first half jittering nervously, or bouncing on her heels as if about to launch into orbit.) But NASA will select its Georgia participants at the annual Jamboree of Birdie Scouts, and the mean-girls in her local Birdie troop want nothing to do with her.
So Christmas starts her own troop. Having checked the Birdie guide out of the library and finding no rule limiting membership to girls, she makes Joseph her first comrade; then come the most feral bullies she knows (Hell-No and the speechless Smash, played by Milan Ray and Johanna Colon); then the one-eyed Jesus freak Ann-Claire (Bella Higginbotham).
For a troop mother, she recruits Davis’ Rayleen, who, as a secretary for Christmas’ luckless defense-lawyer father Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan), has a bit of time on her hands. “I don’t get on good with little girls,” Rayleen complains. But Ramsey reminds her he can’t afford to pay her to work, and some unexplained history Rayleen has with the other troop’s leader (Allison Janney’s Miss Massey, who cloaks every mean comment behind an “I’m playin’, I’m playin'”) seems to prod her into accepting the role.
All that remains is to turn this ragtag crew into official Birdie Scouts, so they can enter the talent show and win a spot on that Golden Record. Though the film seems in opening scenes to be charting its own broadly-drawn quirky path (writer Lucy Alibar co-wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild, and we initially suspect we’re entering a whiter, more ingratiating version of that world), it now settles into a very familiar mode. Rayleen’s first meeting with what will be designated Troop Zero is a Bad News Bears-like parade of misfits, who learn they’ll have to prove their mettle by earning whatever merit badges Troop Five didn’t bother sewing on their sashes.
Bert & Bertie have fun with these challenges, generating some kid chemistry as the gang tries to sell cookies and sleep alone in the woods without dying of fright. Among the soundtrack’s many enjoyable needle-drops, they even manage to cast the kids as pint-sized Reservoir Dogs with a slo-mo “Little Green Bag” scene. But as challenges pile up, the filmmakers don’t trust viewers to get the movie’s message without having it hammered home. Time and again, the dialogue tells our working-class heroes that they shouldn’t expect to win, and should learn to lose graciously: “Y’all will find life gets easier if you don’t want so much.”
Christmas isn’t ready to take that advice, and neither is Rayleen, who regrets not going to law school years ago. Davis isn’t given a very satisfying backstory to work with, but when has she needed one? The actress strikes a satisfying balance between reluctance and protectiveness. Gaffigan and Janney offer just what their parts in the story need, but Davis keeps it all on the rails. In the end, of course, new friendships (cemented with a very unlikely act of solidarity) are the real prize, and being heard by anybody at all is as good as having your voice immortalized for beings in a far-off galaxy.
Production companies: Amazon Studios, Big Indie Pictures, Escape Artists
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Viola Davis, Mckenna Grace, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps, Charlie Shotwell, Allison Janney
Directors: Bert & Bertie
Screenwriter: Lucy Alibar
Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Alex Siskin, Viola Davis
Executive producers: David Bloomfield, Lucy Alibar, Jenny Hinkey
Director of photography: James Whitaker
Production designer: Laura Fox
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin Schaefer
Editor: Catherine Haight
Composer: Rob Lord
Casting directors: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Rated PG, 97 minutes
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