Nostalgic period pieces about childhood are a well established genre, from Little Rascals to Stand By Me to Now and Then. Troop Zero is another valuable entry into the category, with enough wit to balance the sometimes heavy-handed schmaltz.
It’s 1977 in Wiggly, Georgia and nine-year-old Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace) is a bit of an oddball. She harbors an obsession for outer space and aliens, a hobby her and her mother shared before she passed away. Now she spends her nights sending the beam of a flashlight into the night sky, hoping that her mom may see it, wherever she is. When Christmas learns about a contest through the Birdie Scouts (a more rural version of Girl Scouts) to record her voice and send it into space, she becomes determined to win, even though she’s not even a member of the local troop, run by grown-up popular girl and school principal Miss Massey (Allison Janney).
Christmas recruits a rag tag team, including her dance-loving best friend Joseph, the local bully Hell-No and her lackey Smash, and a shy evangelical girl with one eye named Ann-Claire. Her dad, a winless attorney that goes by Boss (Jim Gaffigan), helps convince his sardonic stuck-in-this-hellhole secretary Rayleen (Viola Davis) to take up the mantle of troop mom. With a mean girl smirk, Miss Massey christens them Troop Zero.
So begins the hijinks, with the girls creatively earning enough badges to qualify for the talent competition at the Birdie Scout Jamboree. Previously a disjointed group of losers and weirdos, the troop begins to bond over their common goal, creating a community and support system many of them were lacking. And the growth isn’t limited to the children. Rayleen reluctantly begins to feel attached to them, and Christmas’s unbridled belief in her dreams prompts her to remember her own long-forgotten dreams of going to law school.
Troop Zero can definitely lean heavily into schmaltz. “Be unabashedly yourself” is a worthwhile message, especially for impressionable children, but it’s hard to avoid becoming too saccharine. The film tempers this with quick wit, in no small part thanks to Janney and Davis, who shine as always in roles that require a balance of cynicism and humor. Mckenna Grace is almost insufferably bouncy as Christmas and brings the same earnestness she previously showcased in Gifted opposite Chris Evans. Gaffigan is well cast as the hapless father, hoping to do right as a newly single father.
The world of Wiggly is a good bit more rosy than actual 1977 rural Georgia. The adults are all good-hearted, and even Joseph’s football-loving father quickly comes to accept and cheer on his dress-wearing son. It’s an idealized world that makes for a feel good film, but fails to elevate Troop Zero beyond an enjoyable watch.