Review by C.J. Bunce
One of the failings of many creators for kids is talking down to them. If you treat children from the very beginning like adults, they will step up to the task and embrace acting like adults. Kids know when adults are speaking down to them. They also will be excited when you give them the straight dope. So if you’re creating anything for an audience that includes kids, whether they are seven to seventeen, don’t hold too much back. And that applies double for relationships–kids are smarter than you think and they listen to everything and absorb everything. One of the best parts of Troop Zero is that you can’t tell if its a coming of age movie for adults or kids. And that’s a great thing.
Troop Zero is a new Amazon Studios direct-to-streaming release, and a great movie to watch while sitting at home with your family this weekend. We love coming of age movies (scroll through several we’ve discussed over the decade here at borg), and Troop Zero easily makes our top 20. This is the more nostalgic, sweet, genuine brand of coming of age film (the best kind), part The Bad News Bears, part Paper Moon, and it’s obviously a little bit Moonrise Kingdom and maybe even enters Shirley Temple territory like in The Little Princess. It also ties into one of our favorite NASA accomplishments, the Voyager space probes and golden records prepared by Carl Sagan with voices and music from Earth (also add the PBS documentary The Farthest–Voyager in Space to your must-watch list, reviewed here).
The movie stars the then-12-year-old actress McKenna Grace, who performs like someone with 20 years of experience. This girl has done everything, from playing young Sabrina in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, to young Captain Marvel in last year’s hit film, young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, and she’s the star of the coming summer release (we hope), Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Plus Independence Day: Resurgence, Ready Player One, and a regular on The Haunting of Hill House (the list goes on!). In Troop Zero she plays Christmas Flint, a girl with that same awkward but adorable appeal as Tatum O’Neal in her Oscar-winning performance in Paper Moon. Christmas has the reputation at school for still wetting the bed, she wears red galoshes so no one notices one leg is longer than the other, and no matter how much bad is thrown at her she responds with this incredible positivity. She also loves space, and thinks her dead mother is looking back at her from the stars. When she learns a member of NASA is in town to select a girl to voice the greeting on the Voyager space record, she assembles a ragtag team of girls (and one boy) to join the local scouts, and earn the minimum merit badge each to qualify to go to Jamboree where the troop with the best performance routine will have their voices recorded.
The setting is a fictional home town of Jimmy Carter in Georgia (he was born in Plains). The town has that ever-hot and sticky Fried Green Tomatoes vibe. The motley group of kids is straight out of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts: two ruffian kids, Hell-No! Price played by Milan Ray and Smash played by Johanna Colón (think Team Lucy), Bella Higginbotham as Anne-Claire, a Marcie-esque one-eyed religious girl with glasses, and Charlie Shotwell, engaging as Christmas’ best pal Joseph, a ringer for Peppermint Patty–with Christmas in the Charlie Brown role. Christmas’s dad is played perfectly by Jim Gaffigan, a loving dad and hard-working criminal defense lawyer whose clients keep going to jail and stiffing him on payments. He dotes on his dog, and often leaves his assistant, played by Oscar winner Viola Davis, to watch after Christmas when he goes off to meet the judge, which also means she’s begrudgingly enlisted as the leader of the new Troop Zero.
The tone and 1970s accuracy by directors Bert & Bertie and writer Lucy Alibar is spot-on. I was a Cub Scout when the film is set and a lot in the story mimics what the boys were doing in my pack, down to the creature at the overnight camp-out (these kids have the Giant Caterpillar, we had the Monkey Wolf), all those projects and badges (we baked a cake, too), and not having a leader of the same sex so we improvised like they do in the movie (thanks, for the help with Webelos, Mom!).
Nothing in Troop Zero is bad for kids, but you may have some parents thinking the drama is a bit heavy, that the coming of age aspects may be for some more mature little girls, but not for others. Parents are responsible for their kids, so they’re charged with watching shows first to filter the good from the bad. And that’s fine. But the best stories for kids are a bit heavy–they always have been–in fact you will find it difficult locating classic children’s literature that doesn’t hold back on reality, even frightening concepts abound in works like the Grimm fairy tales or Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So consider this for your mature 10-year-olds on up. And there’s plenty for adults to enjoy, especially if they were in scouting, were adventurous, or ever felt like they were odd-man-out.
The bullying may be a bit much–Oscar-winner Allison Janney’s outright bitchy principal (conjuring Beth Grant’s vile “Sparkle Motion” high school teacher in Donnie Darko) goes far and unanswered and her demon-spawn troop (more creepy little girls?) never get their appropriate just desserts. The storyline resolution of a girl who wets herself resulting from a previous emotional trauma (the death of a parent) doesn’t quite land on the right note instead spinning to a bizarre outcome. But these things are easy to move past. The overall message is one of friendship, family, overcoming obstacles, and not giving up.
Viewers will be disappointed to know that in real life Carl Sagan used his son Nick’s voice on the final Voyager album, and no contest actually happened (the reality is not part of the film). But the end credits show some great footage of the preparation of the record and attachment on the first Voyager probe.