There is an unwavering optimism in directing duo Bert & Bertie’s Troop Zero. This 70s set dream of a picture is an inclusive, kind and magical film that constantly surprises, not only due to some impressive child actors but thanks to a script that manages to make the quirky characters feel wise beyond their years despite never realising it. A film about enduring bravery and friendship, it is overwhelmingly sweet but thanks to some cutting comedy and brusque characters it proves the perfect balm for today’s climate.
When astronomy and alien enthusiast Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace), a young girl growing up in rural Georgia with her dad Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan) discovers that the winning Birdie Troop in the state will be allowed to send a message into space she sets out to make her own troop with the help of her dad’s legal secretary Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis). However she faces opposition by the prim and proper headmistress Miss Massey (Allison Janney) and her troop of ‘proper young ladies’
Almost an homage to the filmmaking of Wes Anderson, Troop Zero feels farcical, full of surreal wide shots, outlandishly gleeful characters and bananas plotting but beneath it all is a look at everything from race to femininity through the lens of youthful ignorance. While it is clear to see the film’s adult are protecting their children from a world actively trying to make them accept less than they can achieve.
Even the films ‘villains’, the kids of Troop five and their Troop Momma Miss Massey are written in a way that their actions not only feel understandable but sympathetic. It doesn’t hurt that Janney weaves a sense of humour into her tightly strung alter ego, while making her undermining actions seem like misguided attempts at being helpful. Even Christmas’s fathers absentee antics feel justified and emotionally resonant.
Lucy Alibar’s script doesn’t make enemies and affords everyone the chance to grow and progress, from Christmas’ impressively buried loneliness to Rayleen’s equally squashed past dreams, allowing her characters to slowly realise their own potential, heartened by others actions. Using a time setting not for political effect but because the notion of the unknown, especially when it comes to space feels that much more important. Today, when space travel is the least of our problems, a little nostalgia and an outgoing personality can go a long way as these characters not only look up but also out of the small town they aspire to grow beyond, much like Rayleen does.
While the whole film is a breath of fresh air it relies heavily on a cast led by a strangely wise performance by the 13 year old Grace who manages to hide fears and grief behind a performance full of courage and unabashed kindness. It sets the tone along with a deeply satisfying turn by fellow child actor Milan Ray as Christmas’ friend and self titled bully Hell-No Price. Each is afforded moments of learning that never feel preachy as Hell-No learns what its like to want something, spouting weirdly grown up lines like ‘Why did you make me feel so unsatisfied?’, never knowing for a second what the answer could be. It’s all very childish but utterly comforting, a warm hug that isn’t constricting in a holier than thou way.
It all boils down to a film that admires creativity, not only within its characters, people who’ve lives are stuck in a rut due to a lack of imagination but through some impressive visuals that cleverly intersperse drama and comedy into the same shot. A climactic stage show finale hits this home in humourous fashion but also packs an emotional punch you didn’t know you needed. Much like Anderson’s filmography, Troop Zero is a film full of contradictions such as amusing tragedy, lively tableau’s and joyous defeats. It all amounts to a really great experience.