For a PG-rated film about a ragtag group of misfit kids, Troop Zero has a surprising undercurrent of darkness. Sure, there are plenty of feel good moments celebrating family values like individuality and friendship, but even as those instances of tween-targeting inspiration play out, the film makes it tough to forget that those are just moments against a larger backdrop – specifically 1970s small town Georgia – that can be incredibly cruel to anyone who’s different. The stark and maybe slightly cynical understanding of the world that writer Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and director Bert & Bertie are putting forth is best conveyed through reluctant troop leader Rayleen (Viola Davis): at one point when Rayleen is trying to teach the kids survival skills, one of them tells her she’s putting them in danger. Rayleen, herself well aware of the ways society treats those who are outsiders, responds “Y’all are in danger every day.”
The driving force behind Rayleen’s Birdie troop is Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), a little girl obsessed with space and aliens. Her mother has died, her father is teaching her to open beer bottles with her teeth, and she has a reputation for wetting the bed, so she’s not exactly sitting at the top of the social hierarchy. When Christmas learns that the upcoming Bridie Jamboree will offer an opportunity to send a message out into space, she decides to form a troop so she can compete. She recruits some other outcasts to round out her group, and her father (Jim Gaffigan) assigns Rayleen, the only employee of his failing law practice, to take on the role of troop leader despite her objection that “little girls give me the creeps.” She may be disinclined, but Rayleen turns out to be exactly the leader the kids need. She’s supportive but also realistic, even as she begins to see that it’s not too late to revisit her own long-ignored dreams. Davis is, unsurprisingly, excellent in the role, finding a way for Rayleen to soften just a little without losing the honesty and practicality that makes her an adult audience’s best connection to the story.
While Rayleen is the most relatable and straightforward character in the film, the story’s trajectory is best reflected through Christmas’s eyes. Grace is an immensely talented young actor, and you can trace Christmas’s education in the ways of the world on Grace’s face over the course of the film. Christmas spends several early moments in the movie grinning dopily at one thing or another, strangely optimistic and hopeful for a kid who has been dealt such a tough hand. As the story unfolds and Christmas is forced to take off her rose-colored glasses and reckon in a very real way with the realities of the world, you can see her coming into her own a bit and beginning to leave that naïve little girl behind. But you also get the sense that she probably won’t grin the same way anymore, and although gaining understanding is a necessary part of growing up, it’s also a little bit heartbreaking.
Troop Zero follows a lot of familiar beats – too many, in fact, to make it the kind of sophisticated film that will be appealing and memorable to audiences of all ages. But Alibar deserves credit for a few unique nuances in the characters. For example, unlike the heroes of many of these types of films, Christmas is not exceptionally smart or talented or charismatic. She’s not a leader, she’s just a weird kid that likes outer space and is determined to make her voice heard there. Smash, a girl with an affinity for destruction who “speaks” only in grunts and growls, is a one-dimensional character, but that one dimension is almost exclusively portrayed in other films by boys. And the complete lack of origin story for Hell-No – her name, her parents, and where and how she lives are all mysteries – is a smart way to let the character’s arc in the film and Milan Ray’s performance control her story.
At this risk of entering minor spoiler territory, Alibar also leaves a few things up in the air in a way that fits the tone of the movie. At the end of Troop Zero, we think we know what direction these characters are headed, but there’s no epilogue or scene set in the future to lend permanence to their tenuous trajectories. Things end on a heartwarming, upbeat note – as could be expected in a film of this ilk – but we leave the film without reassurance that these kids aren’t going to be scarred by ongoing bullying or financial insecurity. Christmas is a little older and a little less naïve, she’s built up some friendships, but we don’t know for sure that she’s going to be all right a year or a decade down the road. And that’s what makes Troop Zero a coming of age film that packs a bittersweet punch: it doesn’t pretend that a clearer understanding of the world and your problems makes them any easier to solve.