Troop Zero (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

I, Tonya (2017)

I can already tell I, Tonya is going to be bitterly divisive with most audiences, since I’m harshly divided on the film myself. For the first half hour I was totally onboard with the humorously cruel rehabilitation of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding’s public persona. Margot Robbie delivers a phenomenal, humanizing performance as Harding; Allison Janney is even more of a force to be reckoned with as her terror of a mother. Both women are deeply flawed, but recognizably genuine human beings from a harsh economic & social background, portrayals that transform a tabloid sideshow into something resembling empathy. Then the beatings start. I, Tonya aims for a tone similar to early Alexander Payne works like Election & Citizen Ruth, where the mood alternates rapidly between quirky comedy & pitch black cruelty. The film is far too tonally messy and not nearly confident enough in its structure for me to always make those leaps, however. It’s difficult to be in the mood to laugh half a breath after watching your protagonist get punched full force in the face, thrown against a wall, pulled by the hair, cornered with a gun, and so on. The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.

I, Tonya is told through several contradictory, direct to the camera monologues that allow characters to reshape public perception through voice-over guidance. As Harding, Robbie delivers two clear mission statements for the film through this device. In one, she complains that she’s been beaten and abused both physically & emotionally throughout her entire life without any public sympathy, while Nancy Kerrigan is America’s Sweetheart for being whacked one time in the kneecap. The dark, matter of fact humor of that statement is representative of the film’s most subversive strengths, which completely flip an outsider’s perspective on the figure skating world’s most infamous controversy. The other mission statement line is where I, Tonya completely loses me. Harding bluntly accuses the audience of continuing her abuse by lambasting her in the press after her husband & his conspirators were caught rigging the competition by bashing Kerrigan’s knee. Pointing an accusatory finger at the audience in this way might work in a more self-aware, tonally sober film, but it feels completely out of line for a black comedy that exploits Harding’s hardships for cruel humor, essentially continuing the sideshow aspect of her story that it aims to condemn. I, Tonya wags its finger by jarringly interrupting its quirky character humor with sudden & brutal acts of deeply upsetting physical violence leveled on its star. The movie continually invites you to enjoy the humor of her situation’s absurdity before telling you you’re scum for obliging. It tosses out free candy only to slap it out if your hand and call you a greedy fuck for accepting it. Separately, I was onboard for Harding’s earnest public rehabilitation and the awkward humor of her working class background. I just found the way violence & audience-shaming editorializing was used to fuse those objectives together to be deeply unpleasant, if not morally repugnant. This is a spiritually ugly film, which might be fine if it were confident enough in its own convictions to own up to that ugliness.

Because I, Tonya‘s moral self-contradiction already had me cornered in a defensive position, I found myself picking at its formal shortcomings in a way I might not have if I were more fully convinced by its tone & objectives. There’s an uncanny valley quality to the CGI of its skate routines that feels both like a distraction & a terror. Its 70s-specific needle drops (despite telling a 90s story) of songs like “Spirit in the Sky” & “Break the Chain” feel as unwittingly cliché as the soundtrack of Robbie’s last major effort, Suicide Squad. The direct-to-the-camera narration is choppily arranged & inelegantly employed, especially as the film largely drops its over-the-top comedic tone in its never-ending third act. Janney & Robbie are uniformly wonderful, but they feel like they’re floating detached from the narrative of their worthy, but mismatched costars. The way real life footage of the conspirators in Kerrigan’s attack is used to justify the continued sideshow aspect of the work soured me even more on the film’s moralistic finger-wagging and sudden bursts of bone-crunching violence. Even the Miramax logo in the opening credits churned my stomach, for reasons that should be obvious. Yet, if I were more convinced by the confidence in the tone & humor of I, Tonya I could totally see myself forgiving or even embracing this scrappy sense of crudeness in craft. Part of the reason I find the film so frustrating is that it’s almost a success, but its self-contradiction is just miscalculated enough for everything to feel like a gut-wrenching failure. I honestly spent most of the picture wishing that I was rewatching the much less prestigious Melissa Rauch comedy The Bronze instead. It’s a trashier, less tonally ambitious version of an Olympics-setting black comedy than what I, Tonya aims for, but at least it doesn’t spit in your face for laughing at its own jokes.

-Brandon Ledet