With characters named Christmas Flint, Dwayne Champaign, and Hell-No Price, and being set in a town called Wiggly, Georgia, in 1977, it’s clear from the giddy-up that Troop Zero is just about as nutty as a five-pound fruitcake. It’s also as cute as a button and more fun than a clown on fire. Exceedingly twee films about quirky youngsters chasing their dreams in the face of petulant bullies aren’t exactly as queer as a two-dollar bill (see The Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks, Stand By Me), but Troop Zero still manages to feel as fresh as a daisy on a warm spring day thanks to a witty script by Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and an all-in cast that includes Allison Janney, Viola Davis, and Jim Gaffigan.
Mckenna Grace leads the way as the aforementioned Christmas, a starry-eyed nine-year-old who lives with her widowed dad (Gaffigan) and spends her lights looking to the heavens. She dreams of outer space, and when a NASA fella wanders into town with news that a recording of people’s greetings to aliens will be going up on the next rocket, she’s all in. The catch is that the voices will belong to the winners of the annual Birdie Scout jamboree talent show, and Christmas ain’t no Birdie. Yet.
She bulldozes through her neighborhood convincing a gaggle of ragamuffins (including the belligerent Hell-No, a one-eyed Jesus freak, and her sexuality-questioning bestie Joseph) to get on board, all under the tutelage of the oh-so-reluctant Miss Rayleen (Davis). Naturally, the prim-and-proper Miss Massey (Janney), leader of already-established Birdie troop in town, has something to say about this motley crew of upstarts and does everything in her power to keep them from tarnishing the image of her own girls and the Birdies’ good name.
Aimed squarely at the pre-teen audience, Troop Zero does its job well, catering to the younger set with goofy scenes involving everything from food fights to exploding beer can chicken. More than that, though, the film makes sure to take time to tackle the beauty of unconventional friendships, sticking up for the oddball, and being your own whack-a-doo self no matter what. Adults need not fear, either—the female directing duo of Bert and Bertie makes sure there’s plenty for the older folk to enjoy, and they bathe the whole thing in an oddly satisfying mustard-colored palette with a delightfully off-beat Wes Anderson-esque vibe.
Troop Zero will most likely come and go without getting near the attention it deserves, and that’s a shame. It’s a distinctively sweet and charming bit of fun with some nice life lessons tucked in for good measure. And though it may not be the best thing since sliced bread, it’s sure to leave you grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato.