Normal was never Christmas Flint's style, though one could probably deduce this from her name alone. A precocious preteen growing up in small-town Georgia in the late 1970s, she spends her free time reclined beside the creek that runs alongside her trailer park, staring at the stars and speaking chummily into the night air, wondering if — hoping that — some form of extraterrestrial life can hear her.
Few in the community will confirm whether Christmas's (Mckenna Grace) messages have any audience, or maybe they're afraid to break the heart of a young girl who recently lost her mother. Her good-hearted but irresponsible father (Jim Gaffigan) won't dare do anything to quell her dreams, nor even will his hard-bitten secretary, Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis).
But Christmas's dream might just have a chance after all, as she learns when eavesdropping on the neighborhood Birdie Scouts. Whichever troop of Birdies wins the upcoming "Jamboree" talent show will have the opportunity to record their voices on the Golden Record aboard NASA's Voyager spacecraft. The problem? Christmas couldn't join the local troop if she tried — the stuck-up scouts and their equally pretentious troop mother, Miss Massey (Allison Janney), have no problem letting her know it, constantly harping on her lack of propriety.
Determination is something Christmas hardly lacks, however. Enlisting whatever fellow misfits she can find and a very, very reluctant Miss Rayleen, the aspirant space-girl begins taking whatever steps necessary to forge her way into interstellar history.
If there's anything directorial duo Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson know how to do, it's fabricate a convincing aura of youthful charm, the greatest triumph of "Troop Zero." Beyond the shabby veneer of the film's backwoods setting, it aptly captures the wide-eyed naïvety and dogged imagination of childhood.
Combined with surprisingly naturalistic performances from Grace and her child peers, the directors pull off this tone by often keeping the camera at the young performers' eye level and composing many frames with a dollhouse-like simplicity and deliberate symmetry. It borrows heavily from Wes Anderson, sure, but not so constantly as to make the film visually uninteresting. Further, expert set and costume design balance the shabbiness of the setting with eye-popping color.
However, for a film that attempts to preach the value of growing into oneself, this movie has a hard time knowing when and how to be mature. Though screenwriter Lucy Alibar uses her adult characters as a Trojan horse for themes of existential angst and unrealized potential, any wisdom shared is rescinded by a woefully predictable story, incomplete or rushed character arcs, and scatological humor that is — even by PG-family-movie standards — horribly excessive. The climax, in particular, relies so heavily on gross-out visuals that all potency or pathos instantly fall victim to the "yuck" factor.
There are family movies far less worth your time than "Troop Zero," that's for sure. If you want the kids to enjoy a few giggles and stay occupied while learning to appreciate top-notch production values, it's probably worth pressing play on this recently released Amazon Prime original. But if you want them to imbibe lasting lessons of self-worth and nonconformity, look elsewhere.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.