Once upon a time, the Sundance Film Festival was a cinematic tastemaker that would routinely break new artistic ground by spotlighting low-budget, high-ambition filmmakers who’d come to define the innovative spirit of Indie Filmmaking: Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, etc. Those days are long gone. The typical Sundance story in recent years is instead one of immense hype, followed by a sharp decline in critics’ & audiences’ enthusiasm. Year after year, the hottest new movie opens to rave reviews & skyrocketing acquisition prices at Sundance, only to later flail in wide distribution. The rest of the festival’s schedule between those early-buzz duds is typically padded out by cute-but-inoffensive indie comedies with a lot of heart & earnestness, but nothing that could be mistaken for innovation. It’s like the festival’s programmers hit a wall after the breakout success of Little Miss Sunshine and have desperately scrambled to recreate that formula every passing year to no avail. The result is a lot of ill-advised distribution purchases that don’t survive the grueling test of wide-audience cynicism and even more harmless-but-trivial indie comedies that don’t get seen by audiences at all.
Troop Zero is the exact kind of adorable, feel-good underdog story that Sundance gets mocked for programming year after year as line-up filler. It follows the Little Miss Sunshine story template as if it were a strict roadmap, pushing Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar’s penchant for cutesy childhood whimsy into the outer limits of good taste. Does the movie feature a ragtag group of bullied, outsider children who fight to compete against the talent-show pageantry of more popular, privileged brats? Yes, and when they fail miserably it’s treated as more of a victory than an embarrassment. After all, victory isn’t some trophy you can take home to put on your shelf; it’s the friends you make along the way. If you’re not careful, this movie can give you a tooth-size cavity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take pleasure in the fact that it’s sweet. If anything, Troop Zero is proof that the modern Sundance formula actually works; or it at least helps explains why the formula can be so enticing for the festival’s programmers & attendees. The film’s roster of pint-sized outcasts & jaded adults is incredibly charming. Its minute-to-minute gags are consistently funny, or at least-heartwarming. I even got a little verklempt at the emotional payoff of its climatic talent show (twice!), despite seeing exactly where the story was going lightyears away. The formula may be safe & predictable, but it works.
Set in an artificially cutesy version of 1970s Georgia (which looks conspicuously like contemporary rural Louisiana), Troop Zero details the rise & fall of the titular, shaggy Girl Scouts troop (or generic Girl Scouts equivalent) as they fight for legitimacy in a system that does not want them. Their unlikely organizer is an astronomy-obsessed nerd who covets the prize for the scouts’ annual Jamboree talent show: a vocal recording that will be launched into space as an attempt at extraterrestrial contact. This space-record MacGuffin sets a clear goal for our tiny protagonist to accomplish. She must form a Girl Scout troop among fellow weirdos adjacent to her trailer park, earn enough merit badges to land a spot in the climactic talent show, wow the judges with her adorkable fabulousness, and then speak her truth to the aliens she so desperately wants to contact. Only, she learns over the course of this journey that making friends among her fellow pint-sized weirdos is more fulfilling than defeating the more popular, privileged troops at the Jamboree, and the aliens eventually take second place in her heart to her newly formed group of friends. The entire tale is potently, unashamedly cute, and your response to that overdose of twee whimsy will depend largely on your cynicism towards that arena of pop media in general.
There’s no denying that Troop Zero is formulaic. Its entire premise feels like a shrewdly calculated mixture of Little Miss Sunshine, Troop Beverly Hills, and Southern Women nostalgia pieces like Fried Green Tomatoes and Now & Then to synthesize the perfect Sunday afternoon comfort-viewing. Nothing about the film feels especially authentic to the oddball charms of Southern living, which is especially apparent in Jim Gaffigan’s slack-jawed parody of Poor Southerner archetypes as the protagonist’s dumb-drunk father (and in directors Bert & Bertie’s status as British outsiders to the culture). Gaffigan’s performance is the only instance of the movie punching down, though. Most of the cast is fully committed to the bit, especially Viola Davis as the slumming-it small-town law student who’s destined for bigger things (an amusing reflection of her over-qualified credentials for the role) and Allison Janney as the heel administrator who’s absurdly obsessed to shutting the troop down before they make it to the Jamboree. Even with all that big-name talent, Mckenna Grace is the film’s clear MVP as the science-nerd protagonist that holds the cast of oddball children together as their overenthusiastic leader. Her off-kilter, Kool-Aid addled charisma is so effortlessly charming that you can’t help but for root for her roundabout scheme to contact space aliens, no matter how contrived it sounds on paper.
I can’t predict whether Sundance will ever reclaim its former glory as a groundbreaking film festival with any real significance as a beacon of artistic innovation. It can certainly do worse than routinely boosting these feel-good underdog comedies, however, which are just as harmless as they are effortlessly charming. It would be extremely limiting if the only kind of indie movie that earned coveted festival slots were post-Little Miss Sunshine trivialities where “a bunch of losers and trash that nobody wants” learn to “be sweet to each other.” That doesn’t mean those movies can’t be individually enjoyable for their own merits, though, and this one’s more winningly adorable than most.