Troop Zero is the kind of movie that a major studio would have made in the 90s. It’s inoffensive, mild, and a story about a bunch of outcast kids who band together and form an unlikely group of friends while the adults around them also learn valuable lessons. Today it’s an indie because major studios won’t make a movie with a low budget, but the mechanics are still the same. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it feels reheated and stale in the hands of directors Bert & Bertie. There’s not much imagination or daring to the relationships, and most of the characters feel like cartoons instead of real people. Despite some strong performances from Viola Davis, Allison Janney, and young lead McKenna Grace, Troop Zero is the kind of safe indie that ultimately feels pointless.
Set in Wiggly, Georgia in 1977, the story follows young Christmas Flint (Grace) who recently lost her mother and spends her nights looking up at the stars. When the Birdie Troops (think Girl Scouts) are offered the chance to be a part of the Voyager gold album that’s being sent into space, Christmas sees it as a chance to connect with the memory of her mother. Christmas assembles a ragtag group including her friend Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), the religious Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), local bully Hell-No (Milan Ray), and Hell-No’s taciturn muscle, Smash (Johanna Colón). The troop is led by her father’s (Jim Gaffigan) reluctant paralegal (Davis), who butts heads with a rival troop’s leader, the prim and proper Miss Massey (Janney).
The film swings wildly between caricatures getting into mischief and an attempt to look at real people who struggle with real issues. In one scene, you’ll have the religious, one-eyed Anne-Claire, whose character can be summed up as “religious” and “has one eye” vomiting when trying to just sell cookies door to door, and in the next you have Davis’ character wrestling with her life decisions and whether or not she should go to law school. No matter where the tone goes, it’s always confined to the safe structure of the underdog story where the next needledrop or heartwarming moment is never too far away.
What’s frustrating is that Troop Zero seems terrified of just being honest with its audience and treating its characters like real people. Instead, it tries to echo that mold set so long ago by movies like Little Miss Sunshine where you have to be hip enough for the cynics but schmaltzy enough for those who want a feel-good story. That’s a tough middle-ground to hit, and rather than just tell a good story with interesting characters, Bert & Bertie seem adrift with what kind of film they want Troop Zero to be. You’ll have a scene where Hell-No and Christmas let down their defenses and become closer friends, and then you’ll also have a scene meant to parody the opening credits of Reservoir Dogs.
There are moments where Troop Zero connects, but those are few and far between. The film is at its best when Davis and Janney’s characters are allowed to just be people or the film sits with Christmas in her grief. Somewhere lurking in Troop Zero, there’s a movie that’s not afraid to let its characters have difficult, complicated emotions and avoid contrived circumstances we’ve seen countless times before. Unfortunately, the movie seems more comfortable when it can throw on another David Bowie song or have a kid earn a merit badge in a fun way.
I don’t have a problem with nice indies. They have their place, and while they may not be memorable, they can be a welcome reprieve and offer some light escapism. The problem with Troop Zero is that it never finds the right tone to become that nice movie. It’s a got a comforting, albeit familiar, message and some interesting characters played by talented actors, but it never comes alive because the film leans so heavily on saccharine moments that feel like a brute force way to your heart rather than earning an emotional reaction. It’s hard to see Troop Zero as “nice” when it comes off as so desperate for the audience’s affection.
Troop Zero will be released by Amazon Studios, but does not currently have a release date.