Film & Television

Fabulous Actresses Save the Messy Movie
‘Troop Zero’

The motley crew, now officially Troop Zero (the only number left in the state of Georgia) must win merit badges and find $500 in order to attend Jamboree. These trials, of course, lead to a series of silly scenes: selling cookies, baking (complete with slow-motion food fight), and wilderness training, a sequence which combines a female Lord of the Flies vibe with one of the film’s most compassionate scenes, between — oddly enough — Christmas and Hell-No. Against many, if not all, odds, Troop Zero succeeds, and, sponsored by every outsider Ramsey ever defended, they go to Jamboree. 

There they don homemade alien and astronaut costumes, and — led by Joseph as Ziggy Stardust — perform a raggedy rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” to the horror of Massey, the other Birdy Girls, and snippy Jamboree leader Miss Aimee (comedienne Edi Paterson), but to the delight of Dr. Persad from NASA (Ash Thapliyal). It’s about as well received as Abigail Breslin’s “Super Freak” solo toward the end of Little Miss Sunshine. But it spurs a show of solidarity among Troop Zero that is inspiring, redemptive, and — quite honestly — wet.

Troop Zero could — and should — be a better movie. Alibar, who based Troop Zero on her own stage play Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower, crafted a far more magical experience in her script for Beasts of the Southern Wild. This film hints at the same childish sense of wonder and otherworldliness, but never quite delivers. Directors “Bert and Bertie,” the combined nom de film of long-time London collaborators Amber Finlayson and Katie Ellwood, might have trimmed some of the more confusing and chaotic bits at the movie’s beginning. Troop Zero is a classic quest film, and starting the quest sooner and fleshing out the challenges (beyond cookie-selling, baking, and a night in the woods) would have provided the audience with some much-needed focus and given their excellent young supporting cast more opportunities to shine.

Troop Zero isn’t bad, per se. It’s just that it could be so good. What is much more than good, however, is the marvelous acting from stars Grace, Davis, and Janney. 

Davis, Oscar-winner for Fences, balances her performance between personal defeat and gumption. Once an aspiring lawyer herself, she’s abandoned her goals for reasons unspecified (but which might include an arrest for doling out some well-deserved punishment to a cheating partner or the challenges faced by a rural black woman in the 1970s). Her bitterness is evident, but soon takes a backseat to sheer determination as she works to secure the Troop Zero kids the chance and respect they deserve. She’s tough on them, which is, of course, exactly what they need, but she’s quick to celebrate their victories.

Janney, Oscar-winner for I, Tonya, seems to be having the time of her life playing the high-and-mighty Miss Massey. But she’s able to add dimension to a role that could easily be a stock villain. She has compassion for Christmas (in the way that one might feel sympathy for someone with an intellectual disability), and a clear understanding of what drives and what has held back Rayleen. The scenes between the two actresses are crisp collaborations and some of the best in the film. And, toward the end of the movie, Janney somehow convinces us that underneath it all, Massey has a heart.

Last and youngest, but not least, Grace proves once again that she is perhaps the finest actress of her generation (a description usually reserved for older, more accomplished thespians like Meryl Streep). As she did in Gifted, Grace imbues her young heroine with emotional knowledge beyond her years. An undeniably adorable kid, she doesn’t resort to just being cute. Christmas is a refreshingly complex heroine who has every reason to feel disheartened, but never loses her sense of self or her earnest hope that people might be good and the future might hold something better. 

If you can excuse a bit of cinematic aimlessness at the beginning (and I suggest you do), you will thoroughly enjoy the story of star-struck Christmas Flint and her band of space explorers. I know I did.

 

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