The advertisements for the film TROOP ZERO seem to be a melange of other films’ influences, with quirky Wes Anderson notes, hints of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, and the lo-fi, indie sensibility that suggests a new kind of movie for kids, that tries to both celebrate the wonder and brutality of childhood while simultaneously carrying something profound and meaningful about hope or recovering from grief, or something. I always applaud attempts at grandeur. I don’t think it’s a problem for films to aspire, and fail to reach their lofty goals. I wish more films did this. And, the many actors and actresses involved seemed superior to the material, making a film that was slow and predictable, into something enjoyable enough to watch on a lazy, summer evening.
We are introduced to the main character, who is given a quirky name, Christmas, and she is presumably the gift and martyr lamb that will be celebrated and sacrificed. Her father is a struggling attorney in a small town, and her mother recently passed away. Like any aspiring martyr, there is a dignity to their poverty, as if it is a chosen thing by a father that would rather help those in great need than help those who take advantage of the needy. Her cast of characters follows, as a simple goal is presented: a record that will be shot into space as a message for aliens. Christmas loves aliens, and spends many evenings staring up at the stars, talking to her alien friends in a scene so carefully presented to be beauty among squalor that it fails the lessons of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD: Squalor is never, truly beautiful – only poignant and unsettlingly sad in its familiarity. As she develops her plan to become a member of a girl-scout-esque “troop” to win the talent contest and leave a message for aliens on the NASA record, she accumulates a hodgepodge of stereotypes, with children that are also castaways and cutouts of the bottom of a town’s strict class divisions. Only the lead bully, Milan Ray, steals every scene and fills out the beauty and power of cinema as Hell-No. The other children seem like background characters, never allowed to fill out into a fully-realized presence on screen. The devout Christian child with one eye is more of an opportunity for punchlines, in particular, which is off-putting in a film so deeply steeped in Christian symbolism and narratives (replacing, of course ‘Jesus’ for ‘Aliens’).
What is very successful in the film, though, is the film happening between electric and amazing actresses Viola Davis and Allison Janney. They play two women who grew up next door, and probably used to be friends, until adulthood and aspirations and failures and all sorts of confusing influences piled up over their childhood joys. Over the course of the film, they both see their own personal dramas played out by the little girls they lead, and realize how harmful they’ve been to themselves and each other, and their missed opportunities to build better narratives for their girls. It is a bright light of subtlety and grace in a film that, on the whole, tries just way too hard to bludgeon its point across with big, broad, obvious symbols and voiceover. The film is slow, slow, slow, and everything feels so “filmy” that it’s hard to take any of the scenes and settings seriously as film. Still, the kids are adorable, and their cute world is enough for a slow evening, with nothing else in mind. It’s better than Ancient Aliens, for sure.