(Screened at Sundance; release TBA)
In 1977, NASA scientists put out the word that they’d be recording greetings from people from around the world and sending them (the recordings) into space to welcome any potential aliens who happened by. That announcement is the jumping-off point for “Troop Zero,” an utterly delightful family comedy set in the backwater town of Wiggly, Ga., where a firecracker of a girl named Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace, destined for stardom) lives with her hillbilly lawyer dad, Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan), barely getting by on account of all his clients being poor folk who can’t pay him. A bit of a tomboy and a misfit, Christmas is obsessed with space and is thrilled to overhear that the winning troop at this year’s Birdie Scout jamboree will have their voices included on the NASA record. (Birdie Scouts are like Girl Scouts except you don’t have to get the Girl Scouts’ permission to put them in your movie.) Christmas is unwelcome in this troop of mean girls, whose troop mother is the school principal, Crystal Massey (Allison Janney), a smarmy, imperious Southern belle, and you know what that means: Christmas has to assemble a ragtag group of fellow misfits to start her own troop, with her dad’s reluctant secretary, Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis), conscripted to serve as leader.
At no point does the plot get more complicated than it sounds, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are a few overly simplistic moments, but the clean, uncluttered structure of Lucy Alibar’s screenplay (quite different from her “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) is appropriate for a sunny-messaged comedy about young girls learning to support one another. Christmas’ coalition includes her best pal, Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), a flamboyant, Aretha-loving lad whom the mean girls call “Girl-Boy”; Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), a one-eyed born-again Christian who asks the Lord’s opinion before accepting Christmas’ offer (the Lord approves); Hell-No (Milan Ray), a tough-girl bully who just needs to channel her rage; and Smash (Johanna Colón), Hell-No’s stout, gleefully destructive henchperson.
As the girls and Joseph earn badges and discover hidden talents, we come to understand that Miss Rayleen is living the regretful life of one who put off doing what she was good at in favor of something easier. She’s pessimistic about the status quo ever changing, and she declares up front that she’s not good with children (“You can’t even hit ’em no more, they changed the laws”), but her affection for her “boos,” as she calls them, is apparent. Viola Davis is her usual fierce self, and Allison Janney is just this side of campy as the opposing troop leader (who also happens to be Miss Rayleen’s life-long rival). Jim Gaffigan’s Ramsey Flint Esq. is like Atticus Finch if one of Atticus Finch’s first lines had been, “Where’s my pants?” and if he’d had a Pomeranian he carried with him everywhere. Ramsey and Christmas call each other “Boss” and have a warm, loving relationship that really does recall Atticus and Scout.
The adults and the kids are all having a fun time, but the star is young Mckenna Grace, whose grinning, giddy glee about everything is endearing. The directors, a female duo known as Bert & Bertie, are smart to show Grace’s ebullient face as often as possible. You may quibble with the film’s glossy simplicity, but it’s hard to see that sunny face and not feel a little brighter.
B+ (1 hr., 34 min.; )