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

The Sick, Sad Art of the Rear Window Romcom

One of the more immediately bizarre aspects of April’s Movie of the Month, the deliriously silly Mark Waters romcom Head Over Heels, is that it’s a low-key reimagining of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Although Rear Window does have its own sly, delicate sense of humor operating under its murder mystery thriller beats, it’s hardly the light-hearted romantic romp Waters later fused with Zoolander-style fashion world parody in Head Over Heels. A blood pressure-raising thriller plot about a shameless voyeur spying on his neighbors​ through his apartment window and possibly witnessing a murder isn’t the first place you’d expect to find inspiration for a by the books romantic comedy, but Waters amplified & broadened the once subtle humor of the Hitchcock classic to do just that. The strangest thing about that choice is that he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to get there. Rear Window had been hammered into the shape of a generic romcom before, one that was even more faithful to its almighty genre tropes.

When describing Head Over Heels in our initial conversation about the film, Boomer explained, “It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life.” I’m not sure he knew exactly how accurate he was when he wrote that. The 1997 Meg Ryan romcom Addicted to Love shares far more with Head Over Heels’s basic DNA than I could have imagined any film could, considering how uniquely ridiculous the Mark Waters picture feels as a novelty. Not only does Addicted to Love feature Ryan, the Queen of the 90s Romcom, getting wrapped up in a Rear Window-inspired plot, but the film itself is named after a Robert Palmer song, while Head Over Heels was titled after a track by The Go Go’s. As Boomer also pointed out in that initial Head Over Heels conversation, the art of “romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music” has somewhat died off since Meg Ryan’s heyday, so it’s amusing to me that both of these Rear Window romcoms would be titled that way.

It’s worth noting that, unlike with Head Over Heels, the Addicted to Love version of the Rear Window romcom involves no investigation of a possible murder. Matthew Broderick stars as a small town yokel/brilliant astronomer whose heart is broken when the love of his life (Kelly Preston) moves to NYC and falls for another man. Broderick, in his devastated state, sets up shop in the abandoned warehouse across the street from this couple and becomes a full time voyeur, spying on their relationship through the window, waiting for an opportunity to win back his love. One night, he witnesses a break-in and the masked criminal in the apartment catches him spying. After scarily barging into his hidey-hole, they’re quickly revealed to be a no nonsense, biker chick Meg Ryan, who is seeking to exact revenge on the ex-fiancee that just happens to be Broderick’s old love’s new beau. Through various tools of the astronomy trade, the miserable pair of vengeful saps start to spy on their ex-lovers as a team, occasionally venturing past simple voyeurism into revenge-in-action. And, wouldn’t you know it, the more time they spend together the less they care about what their exes are up to. It’s a match made in miserable wretch Heaven.

The theme of voyeurism and the inability to act that runs through Rear Window makes it just about as odd of a choice for romcom inspiration as its central threat of violence. Head Over Heels dives into the spiritual darkness of this premise head first, not only keeping the witnessed murder aspect of Rear Window as a central part of its romcom plot, but also dragging its poor protagonist and her supermodel roomates through a long line of degrading encounters with adulterous lovers, horny dogs, child molesters, and human feces. I dare say that in its own moments of pitch black despair Addicted to Love manages to get even darker than that Mark Waters work, however. Matthew Broderick’s brokenhearted voyeur stops shaving and takes to chugging hard liquor. While spying on his ex, he meticulously tracks her daily routines on astronomy style charts, even documenting her smiles based on frequency and enthusiasm. Meg Ryan also gets dragged down to this desperately sad level once she finds herself squatting with Broderick in his spy nest/shit hole, at one point crawling across its unswept floorboards, pawing at cockroaches to use in a prank at her ex’s expense. She also uses Broderick’s pain against him, exclaiming, “The only way that girl is going to come back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window,” and going on to describe the enormity of her ex’s dick to be “like Godzilla’s tail; he can take Tokyo down with that thing,” (which is especially funny now, given Broderick’s eventual run-in with Godzilla, tail and all). And if all that weren’t enough pain & degradation already, the big dick Cassandra from across the street eventually goes on an alpha male tirade where he threatens Broderick with the line, “I will rip out your eyes and rape your skull. Excuse my French.” This is a romcom, though, don’t forget. Ryan and Broderick do eventually become romantically linked, even if their first night together involves them getting black out drunk and dressing up like each other’s exes. Yikes.

Objectively speaking, Head Over Heels is a far better film than Addicted to Love, which is fine, but not nearly as memorable or as genuinely funny. Considered strictly on its merits as a romcom adaptation of Rear Window, however, Addicted to Love is the bigger success. Head Over Heels maintains the witnessed murder aspect of the Hitchcock classic, but branches off from there to cover everything from fashion world fantasy to ZAZ-style parody humor to Farrelly Brothers gross-outs to action comedy beats surrounding a diamond heist. Addicted to Love is much more faithful to the perverse, depressive aspects of voyeurism that humored Hitchcock in Rear Window and had a sort of novelty to the way it sticks more closely to that seminal work. It even finds a striking visual palette in its voyeurism-aiding astronomy equipment. Broderick builds a camera obscura to more easily spy on his & Ryan’s exes in his squat, and the two often watch that machine’s projection as if it were a 24 hour soap opera. All of the telescopes, flow charts, and depressive bouts of alcoholism in the world couldn’t save the picture from being just one of many titles in a long line of Meg Ryan romcoms, though. It’s a fairly generic example of a Meg Ryan Picture, except for its novelty as a Rear Window-inspired romcom, but the basic absurdity of that combination can’t be overlooked and the fact that there are at least two movies that fit that description is highly amusing to me.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander, and this piece exploring the similarities in the premise and humor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

-Brandon Ledet