Eight years have passed since Beasts Of The Southern Wild went from Sundance sensation to unlikely multiple Oscar nominee (Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay), yet only now are we starting to see new work from the two people who conceived it. Director Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature, Wendy, premieres at Sundance later this month, where it’ll no doubt get plenty of attention. But relatively few at the festival last year heralded Troop Zero, adapted by Lucy Alibar from her own experimental stage play—just as she and Zeitlin adapted Beasts from her play Juicy And Delicious. The connection’s not easy to spot unless one checks the credits, frankly, as there’s precious little offbeat or innovative about this triumph-of-the-misfits kid pic; it’s more Troop Beverly Hills than Moonrise Kingdom. Alibar seems to be fixated on girls pining for absent mothers, though, and Troop Zero partially compensates for its formulaic nature with sheer heartfelt empathy for its marginalized youngsters.
Alibar also likes to give her protagonists names that some will find annoyingly precious. Beasts’ Hushpuppy gets a spiritual sister here in 12-year-old Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace, who played both the young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya and the young Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel), a budding astronomer who spends her nights looking up at the stars and dreaming of extraterrestrial contact. The year is 1977, and Voyager 1 is about to launch. When Christmas learns that the winners of a local Birdie Scout Jamboree will have their voices featured on one of the probe’s Golden Records, she hurriedly forms her own troop, recruiting every other unpopular kid in her small Georgia town. There’s Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), who’s perceived as effeminate in a time and place extremely hostile to that notion; Hell-No (Milan Ray), who received that nickname due to her frequent use of the phrase; Smash (Johanna Colón), who’s basically the answer to the question “What if the Hulk were trapped in the body of a sullen tween girl?”; and Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), a painfully shy evangelical with only one intact eye. Since Miss Massey (Allison Janney), the snobby mother of the town’s existing Birdie troop, won’t let these outcasts join, they draft Rayleen (Viola Davis), who works for Christmas’ widowed father (Jim Gaffigan), to head up a new one.
Most of Troop Zero’s ostensible comedy revolves around the kids’ efforts to qualify for Jamboree by earning merit badges, and there’s little to distinguish those gags from a zillion previous amiably silly films in the same vein. The directing team of Bert & Bertie (that’s how they bill themselves) struggle to establish a coherent tone, throwing in whatever they think might appeal; an elaborate shot-for-shot parody of Reservoir Dogs’ opening-credit sequence is both weirdly anachronistic (Tarantino’s film was released 15 years after this one takes place) and atypically conceptual. Gaffigan has a bit of fun as the loving but oft-preoccupied dad, and gets the film’s one really good line, telling the kids, “Life ain’t about winnin’. I mean, it is for some, for those who win. But for the rest of y’all…” Janney can’t do much with her garden-variety stick in the mud, though, and Davis’ character is saddled with way more lifelong discontent than this otherwise flimsy role can bear.
More effective are Alibar’s efforts to generate pathos among the younger characters. Christmas’ yearning for connection with the universe is expressly tied to her grief for her late mother, and Grace manages to convey that sense of loss via manic enthusiasm rather than depression—a refreshingly non-intuitive approach. Christmas also responds to anxiety in a way that’s made her an object of ridicule, and the resolution of this subplot is at once touching and really gross. Viewed as any sort of follow-up to Beasts, Troop Zero looks like a sellout. By the standards of mainstream live-action children’s fare, however, it’s more mature and thoughtful than average. Just don’t expect any Oscar nominations, even for recent winners like Davis and Janney.