Like most children, I learned how to read through a steady diet of classic chapter books- from “Charlotte’s Web” to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to “Cricket in Times Square.”
None of these books, it should be mentioned, will ever be mistaken for true stories. (If you know a spider that can weave words into her web, please let me know.) But, to me, these stories felt true. They conveyed universal truths to children- the importance of love and self-sacrifice and selflessness- in a way that simple realism could not.
Perhaps the biggest mistake we make as adults is in confusing what is real for what is true. We get hung up on whether the stories we’re consuming could happen in real life and often miss their inherent truths.
I imagine kids will pick up on the truth of Amazon Prime’s latest original movie “Troop Zero” right away. For me, it took longer. I spent way too much of the film’s hour-and-a-half runtime caught up on aesthetics- how the town of Wiggly, Georgia never seemed like a real place, how the characters never seemed like real people. It wasn’t until I threw my hands up into the air in exasperation and chose to accept the film on its own terms that I started to truly appreciate what I was watching.
And there really is a lot to appreciate.
Adapted by Lucy Alibar from her 2010 play “Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower”, the film is rooted in a real sense of time and place, which made it even more difficult for me to accept the film’s quirkiness at first. A key plot-point even involves a strange-but-true chapter in U.S. space exploration history: the creation of golden records that were attached to the Voyager I and II robotic probes as a way to educate extraterrestrial life about human culture.
Young Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace) is desperate to have her voice recorded on one of those records and to let her voice be heard throughout the universe. But NASA is only recording the winning Birdie Scout troop at this year’s scout jamboree. And Christmas really isn’t the scouting type.
Undeterred, Christmas sets out to find some fellow scouts for her troop and settles on the most ragtag group she can find: Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), an effeminate boy trapped in his macho hometown; Anne-Clair (Bella Higginbothom), a one-eyed born-again Christian; Smash (Johanna Colon) who we’re told “is like the universe. She is full of gas and mystery”; and the exceptionally named Hell-No Price (Milan Ray), a bully who “eats obstacles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Adding insult to injury, scout leader Miss Massey (Allison Janney) dubs the troop “Troop Zero” since all the other numbers are taken. But Christmas doesn’t mind.
“Zero is the number of infinity,” she says.
As the scouts were introduced, I had to roll my eyes a little bit. Not a single one of these Birdie Scouts resembles a person you or I have ever met. The same goes for the adults including Miss Massey, troop mother Rayleen (Viola Davis, great as always), and Christmas’s down-and-out attorney father Ramsey Flint (Jim Gaffigan).
The kids talk like adults and the adults talk like sitcom characters. “Troop Zero” reflects reality only if you think a Wes Anderson movie is reality.
But if the characters feel false, their struggles – to be loved, to be heard, “to be permanent” as one character says- ring true. We might not have one eye or a bed-wetting problem, but I imagine we have all felt like outcasts. We have all felt like we don’t belong. We have all felt like there is something inside of us that is irreparably broken. So, we settle for mediocrity because we think that is what we deserve.
“Troop Zero” tells us all to aim higher and to make our voices heard even if no one wants to listen. That is a lesson that’s just as meaningful for adults as kids, I think.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I cry frequently while watching movies, but I am sort of surprised that I cried during this one. After spending most of the movie rolling my eyes, I was sucker-punched by the emotion I felt at the film’s conclusion. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but of course it didn’t. I, like a one-eyed Birdie Scout, was a little too blind to see it coming.
I could go on about other issues I had with this movie – how Janney’s character changes inexplicably near the end, how the character played by Mike Epps is so ill-defined that I am not entirely sure why he is in the movie- but that would be missing the point, I think.
Like so many good children’s stories before it, “Troop Zero” (rated PG for thematic elements, language and smoking throughout) doesn’t keep even one foot in reality. But it is deeply rooted in truth, and that might be even more important.
“I wish I had y’all when I was little and dumb and sweet,” Miss Rayleen tells her troop near the end of the film.
I do too, but I’m glad that today’s kids can grow up with these Birdie Scouts.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.