For a while now, film enthusiasts have been waiting to see one of the most prolific actresses in the game, Viola Davis, tackle a comedy (no, we’re not counting The Help). Last year, Davis set an intriguing project at Amazon Studios (where her JuVee Productions now has an overall deal) with Allison Janney. At the Sundance Film Festival, we were able to see the finished product.
Helmed by Bert & Bertie, Troop Zero is an infectiously sweet comedy about the underdogs of the world with the theme of working together. Set in the rural Georgia town of Wiggly in the year 1977, the film focuses on a young child named Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace) who is the outcast of outcasts. She’s into everything about outer space, because this is where she thinks her late mother now resides. She lives with her hacky lawyer father Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan) and his no-nonsense secretary and paralegal Rayleen, who serves as a sort of surrogate mother for Christmas. She keeps Ramsey, the business and Christmas in order, despite the fact that deep down, she regrets not attending law school herself and making the most of her life. Not counting Rayleen, Christmas only has one friend, her next door neighbor Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), who is also an outcast because he prefers dancing to football, has idols like Aretha Franklin and David Bowie and acts less masculine than is socially acceptable for a boy in the 1970s South.
Christmas becomes intrigued by a Girl Scouts-esque organization called the Birdie Scouts after she finds out that the winners of the annual Birdie Scouts Jamboree will be able to send a recording to space through NASA on the Voyager. She believes this to be a chance to send a message to her mother. The mean girls at her school, led by their principal, the nice-nasty Ms. Massey (Allison Janney), don’t want her to be a part of their troop. So, she recruits a bunch of misfits including Charlie, and tomboy bullies Hell-No (Milan Ray) and Smash (Johanna Colon), as well as one-eyed, deaconess-in-the-making, Ann Claire (Bella Higginbotham). She asks a reluctant Rayleen to be their troop mother. She’s not really into the idea at all, but they affectionately become her “boos” and are given the troop number assigned by Ms. Massey: Troop Zero. In order to make it to Jamboree, all of the scouts in the troop have to earn at least one badge themselves, which takes the quintet— and Rayleen— on a journey of creativity, individuality, self-discovery and friendship. It’s a voyage with an emotional ending that will tug at your heartstrings. Another crucial part of the narrative is mourning, with a specific interest on the impact of death on children.
It’s rare to see Davis doing comedic fare, but once again, she proves that she’s one of the best when it comes to crossing over from tears to laughs. Considering she’s top-billed (and the fact that she’s the Viola Davis) the How to Get Away With Murder star actually could have used several more minutes of screen time, which would have allowed her to flex some more and provide much needed backstory for her character, which was sorely missed outside of lots of vague assumptions.
Though the film has the powerhouses of Davis and Janney, it’s the young ones who hold up the film. The sheer expressions of McKenna Grace as Christmas are enough to light up anyone’s face with a grin throughout this film and Shotwell is a standout with his spunky performance. Then there’s Milan Ray, who even as a child actor gives a multi-dimensional performance that we rarely see from actors this young. She’s definitely one to watch.
The story of Troop Zero isn’t anything new and doesn’t even the wheel. It’s your run-of-the-mill underdog story with the outsiders we’re rooting for going up against the mean girls, but it’s also a fun, light and heartwarming affair that’ll surely appeal to kids, their parents and everyone in between.
Troop Zero was screened by press at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2019. Its world premiere at the festival will be held on February 1, 2019. The film will be released by Amazon Studios in 2019.