In last week’s Underwater review, I talked about the classic T.S. Eliot line “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” There’s nothing new under the sun, so I don’t want to harp on copycatting week in and week out. That said, it’s worth revisiting with Troop Zero.
Underwater fizzled because it didn’t do anything worthwhile with its mimicry. It repackaged Alien for people who can instead just watchAlien. Troop Zero, on the other hand, recalls Little Miss Sunshine and Moonrise Kingdom. But it’s not a complete throwaway because it positions itself for a different audience: kids.
The film, which premiered at Sundance last year, opens in Georgia, 1977. Young Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), a space-obsessed outcast who recently lost her mother, overhears the local Birdie Scouts discussing their upcoming jamboree. It seems the top-performing troop will get to speak on NASA’s Golden Record, which will go into space as part of the Voyager program.
Christmas, of course, wants to join the Birdies and get on the record—but her alleged pants-peeing and bullying by the Birdies force her to start her own troop. Can this motley crew pull itself together in time to win the day? It’s not too difficult to call this one.
Summarized like that, Troop Zero doesn’t sound too derivative. And yet, the movie goes from novel to “I see where this is going” pretty quickly. As a result, there’s a major pacing problem up until the jamboree, which culminates in an expected stage number. Christmas leads Troop Zero’s atypical act, the audience and organizers are put off, and the other lovable misfits perform a bold act of solidarity. Though they may not win the grand prize, they’re better for coming together and giving it a shot.
The beats are broadly imitative, but the overall look and feel really drive it home. Sure, yellow titles, yellow grading, and yellow costume design aren’t the most direct signifiers of all time. But all are used—with relative fame—in both Little Miss Sunshine and Moonrise Kingdom. A movie can’t own a color, but when it’s combined with other twee sensibilities, familiar oddball story arcs, and a Bowie-heavy soundtrack, it’s hard not to look at what it’s knocking off.
Troop Zero ’s saving grace is that most of the young ’uns it’s geared toward have never seen either of those movies. It’s a boring watch for us adults, but because it does feel so much like Little Miss Sunshine Jr., it hits its stride tackling similar themes. As such, Troop Zero offers nice lessons about resilience in the face of certain defeat and being yourself no matter what.
If there’s one last gripe for the grownups, it’s the issue of Troop Zero’s setting. The Voyager plot point necessitates that the movie take place in the late ’70s, but Troop Zero handles concepts of race, class, and homosexuality with a cursory and pretty rosy outlook, even for today. It’s mostly a children’s movie, so I’m not looking for a nuanced critique of income inequality. But it’s a little dishonest to act like a gay kid in rural 1977 Georgia will be heralded by the townsfolk as a superstar hairdresser. It’d be a better world, but it’s not our world. And without deeper dives, Troop Zero feels a bit hollow in places.
Despite its flaws, Troop Zero offers a serviceable story for little kids. Little Miss Sunshine’s f-bombs, suicide subplot, and heroin use are probably more than most of them can handle, so this’ll do until they get older. If Underwater is red on the imitation scale, Troop Zero is a nice Wes Anderson yellow. Maybe next week we’ll have a green movie, and I’ll never have to talk about T.S. Eliot again.