Though we’ve yet to be graced with a David Bowie biopic set to the late artist’s music, “Troop Zero” overtly invokes the spirit of the patron saint of weirdos — all while licensing a handful of his songs. This charming family comedy rocks out to “Rebel Rebel,” “Space Oddity” and more, but its usage of the classic hits never feels forced in its tale of lovable oddballs and their dreams of the stars.
Raised by her father (Jim Gaffigan) after the death of her mother, Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) is no average 9-year-old. What she is, however, is an outer-space-obsessed, sci-fi-loving nerd who surely has a future in STEM. But this is Wiggly, Ga., in 1977, before the initiative for women in science and technology was a thing, and Christmas’ classmates just see her as a weirdo. When she learns of an opportunity to have her voice recorded and sent into space, she desperately wants to be a part of the project. The only problem is that the way to get on the recording is to be a part of the Birdie Scout troop that wins the talent show at the group’s Jamboree, and the Wiggly group led by Miss Massey (Allison Janney) won’t have her as a member.
So the ever-resilient Christmas starts her own Girl Scout-like group, full of the misfits of Wiggly: Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), who loves playing beauty shop and is bullied for being neither a boy nor a girl; Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), the earnest, Jesus-loving sweetheart with only one eye; Hell-No (Milan Ray), a feisty firecracker who wants no part of Christmas; and Smash (Johanna Colón), a gassy bruiser who snarls more than she speaks. Led by their troop mother, Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis), the group works to earn their badges so they’ll have a place on the stage at the Jamboree.
Adapted by Lucy Alibar from her own play “Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower,” “Troop Zero” is more grounded than the screenwriter’s Oscar-nominated co-writing debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” However, there are still hints at the magical realism that made that film so imaginative, particularly whenever the movie tilts its gaze heavenward. What’s perhaps most fantastical here is the utter lack of racism in this small town in Georgia in the ‘70s, with the bullying and isolation among the diverse group of kids focusing mostly on those who are different in ways other than their skin color. Beyond that blind spot, “Troop Zero” shares a message of kindness and acceptance, embracing what makes each child special.
This comedy from directing duo Bert & Bertie feels as unique — and sometimes as flawed — as each of its characters, particularly in its slow-starting opening act where it’s tough to look past Grace’s truly awful wig. But “Troop Zero” is bursting with personality and stylistic flourishes; it might be too twee for some, but it’s better to let yourself be won over by its sincerity and sweetness, tempered by just enough sadness and quirk.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Available Jan. 17 on Amazon Prime Video