Troop Zero Review: Lite-le Miss Sunshine

Troop Zero Allison Janney and Viola Davis in Troop Zero. (Amazon Studios)

Amazon Prime’s girl scout comedy wastes its cast and period setting to make for an involving, generically cute indie.

When the world seems lifeless, it’s natural to look up to the stars for an alternative, if not an escape. That’s what nine-year-old Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) does on her lonely nights, shining a flashlight at the sky and speaking to space aliens she’s convinced are listening. Life’s no picnic, and Christmas is lonely: her mother has recently passed away, and to cope, her father (Jim Gaffigan), has buried himself in his unsuccessful legal practice.

Then one day, a scientist arrives at Christmas’ school in Wriggly, Georgia. It’s 1977 and NASA is collecting audio recordings that will be sent into space with the Voyager probe. But who gets to speak on “the golden record?” For some reason, it’s whichever group of “Birdie Scouts” wins a state talent show. Of course, Christmas can’t just join her local chapter, which is populated by thinly-written bullies and led by the prim Miss Massey (Allison Janney). And so Christmas sets out to create her own group of thinly-written Birdie Scouts.

If you can’t tell by now, Amazon Prime’s Troop Zero (also the name of Christmas’ squad) is one of those annoying indie movies about a plucky kid, the type that uses ironic shots of characters walking in slow-motion as a stand-in for any real personality or pathos. Penned by Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar and directed by “Bert and Bertie” (Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson), Zero is essentially a discount version of Little Miss Sunshine—a story barreling toward child pageantry, so satisfied with its own quirkiness that it never comes across as anything but obligatory.

How a flick can so thoroughly waste performers like Janney and Viola Davis is beyond me. The latter plays Rayleen, Christmas’ father’s law assistant, who’s roped into becoming the Birdies’ “Troop Mother.” Davis is given no material to sink her teeth into, her character unconvincingly rolling her eyes until she accepts her job as a surrogate parent. Sure, the script provides moments where the actress gets to do some capital-A Acting, dramatically announcing how her life has passed her by, but nobody could add a true third-dimension to a role this flat. At least she’s got a bit more than Gaffigan, who is only in the movie to call everyone “Boss man.” Your guess why is as good as mine.

The kids don’t fare much better. To make “Troop Zero,” Christmas recruits an evangelical girl named Anne-Claire, her friend Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), and two bullies named “Hell-No Price” (Milan Ray) and “Smash” (Johanna Colón). They’re all given approximately one defining trait that’s explored in a brief, forgettable scene before the movie moves on. Who are these children’s parents, and what’s made them stand-out the way they do? Troop Zero never provides its characters anything beyond window-dressing for motivation.

Zero is essentially a discount version of Little Miss Sunshine—a story barreling toward child pageantry, so satisfied with its own quirkiness that it never comes across as anything but obligatory.

Things are just as shallow from a craft perspective. Rocking a digital, bland color palette, the film lacks any sense of texture. Aside from the golden record set-up, the period setting adds next to nothing, never mined for meaning and rarely acknowledged. Much—if not all—of the comedy falls flat. Grace, it appears, is the only bright spot. The young actress (I, Tonya, Gifted) turns in a committed performance and really does her best to make things more fun, breathing some rare flashes of life into this rehash.

I suppose all these flaws aren’t horribly offensive. Instead, this thing just stumbles from scene to scene; despite only lasting a mere 94-minutes, it sure feels like it takes forever for the film to arrive at its inevitable conclusion. We all look to the stars for an escape, and if you throw on Troop Zero, you’ll find yourself gazing upwards too.

Troop Zero is zeroing in on Amazon Prime now.

Troop Zero Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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