A pint-sized powerhouse leads this Southern tale brimming with heartfelt messages.
Misfits make for great kiddie fare.
Take a child, any child, who doesn’t “belong” and suddenly you’ve got a character to care about.
The family-friendly “Troop Zero” follows a gaggle of outcasts cracking the girl scout circuit. It’s bittersweet cinema, the kind with more on its mind that PG antics. What’s missing is a narrative focus that brings the wholesome messaging together.
A precocious girl named Christmas (Mckenna Grace of “Crash & Bernstein,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”) pines to explore outer space. It’s a distraction from her fractured home life. Her mother passed away, and Dad (Jim Gaffigan) spends his days keeping the family’s finances afloat.
It’s a losing battle.
So when Christmas learns of a NASA program where children can record messages to be sent into space, she’s all in. Only she’ll need to form a “Birdie Scout” group to snag the honor. With the help of the stern but loving Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis), Christmas assembles a band of outcast girls – and one boy – to compete for the grand prize.
It won’t be easy, thanks to the villainous Miss Massey (Allison Janney) and a neighboring troop set on squashing their dreams.
The underdog formula locks in early in “Troop Zero,” a tale set in 1977 Georgia. It’s the obstacles in the girls’ way that win our hearts. Christmas can’t always control her bladder, and her fellow Birdie Scouts have woes peeling them away from polite society.
One tyke, dubbed Smash (Johanna Colon), is the opposite of a stereotypical Georgia peach.
Grace leads this unusual flock, delivering the least “kid-like” performance in ages. She’s genuinely odd, this Christmas girl, with cadences unlike most tykes.
If only the film around her proved equal to the performance.
“Troop Zero” means well, and at times screenwriter Lucy Alibar nails the southern spirit of its time and place. Still, it’s lightweight when it should be sturdy, the narrative tumbling forward with too little momentum.
Davis and Janney lap their one-dimensional roles. Janney, in particular, gives her crooked character context beyond what the story suggests. Davis’s Rayleen, a budding legal eagle, hints at the barriers women of color faced at the time without slipping into Lecture Mode.
The same holds true for young Joseph, the only boy in this Birdie Scout group. He’s a misfit, too, but he finds friendship with these unconventional girls.
Gaffigan demands more screen time, period. Who is this overwhelmed father figure, anyway? We crave more scenes with him and Christmas.
It’s hard not to adore what “Troop Zero” promotes. Children shouldn’t let societal rules define them, let alone crush their hopes and dreams. Misfits matter, especially when our “best and brightest” are nothing of the kind.
Children may enjoy the film’s physical humor and a surreal bonding experience in the third act. Parents will simply be glad their kiddoes joined this troop.
HiT or Miss: “Troop Zero” isn’t as fully realized as it could be, but it packs a wonderful lead performance and messages worth savoring.