Jim Gaffigan has no fewer than nine credits to his name for 2019, from the beautifully rendered Light From Light to a voice role in Playmobil: The Movie, one of the year’s biggest flops. Somewhere in between is Troop Zero, a direct-to-Amazon Prime feature film about a young girl named Christmas (McKenna Grace, I, Tonya) who grows up fast one summer in small-town, 1977 Georgia when she joins a fictional scout group with her fellow misfits.
Gaffigan is Ramsey, Christmas’s over-the-top Southern lawyer of a father who’d go to the ends of the Earth for his little girl since her mother died, if only he knew the first place to begin. His office assistant Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) keeps him on track, and is eventually conscripted to lead the troop of Birdies, as they’re called in the film, when Christmas assembles the group of cast-offs that aren’t welcome as part of the picture perfect troop led by Miss Massey (Allison Janney).
Christmas and her friends set about to earn Birdie merit badges in hobbies like camping, baking and more, leading to a series of montages that make a significant portion of the film feel like one big compilation shot. But it’s all in an effort to make their way to the Birdie Jamboree talent show where (for some reason?) NASA is going to give the winning troop the chance to record a message to send into space. Still grieving from her mother’s death, Christmas is obsessed with outer space and what lies beyond our knowledge, so she’s determined to win this prize of all prizes.
Troop Zero isn’t without its charms, among them the characteristically strong performances from Gaffigan, Janney and above all Davis. Even when they’re chewing up a scene in their exaggerated Southern drawls, each is dutifully sincere in delivering sometimes flat lines of dialogue. The wannabe Wes Anderson aesthetic works, too, as filmmaking duo Bert & Bertie (Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson) create a late-1970s that’s bright and quirky. Unfortunately, the story by Lucy Alibar (a co-writer on 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild) tries so hard to be endearing, it annoys. From the excessive montages to the troop’s botched talent show performance, one can certainly see where the film is trying to go, with its pop culture references and be-yourself message. But just as it earns a modicum of goodwill, it squanders it on predictable plot points and overly twee intentions.
Unlike many of their other offerings, Amazon has chosen not to send Troop Zero to theaters, and it’s a wise choice; perfectly harmless for a night in, the film is probably best suited for a movie night selection for a tween’s slumber party, perhaps the only audience who’ll happily soak up its saccharine themes.