'Troop Zero' Review: Viola Davis And Allison Janney Headline This Charming Comedy, But It Belongs To The Kids [Sundance]

From its opening shot that travels from the Big Dipper all the way down to the small town of Wiggly, Georgia in 1977, Troop Zero, a Southern-fried comedy from female co-directors Bert & Bertie, seems to constantly walk the line of being too precocious and cute for its own good. But even though its jokes don't always land, the film is still a pleasant, largely charming diversion and further proof that Viola Davis can elevate any movie she's in.

The absurdly-named Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) is a nine-year-old obsessed with making contact with alien life. When we first meet her, she's shining flashlights into the sky in an attempt to tell the universe she exists – and also to potentially speak to her dead mother, whom Christmas believes may now reside among the stars. She lives with her dad (Jim Gaffigan), a hapless, well-liked defense lawyer who's perpetually behind on collecting payment from his clients, and looks up to Rayleen (Davis), her dad's all-purpose secretary who regrets never having gone to law school decades before.

Christmas, clearly an outsider, is occasionally bullied by the mean girls in the local Birdie Scout troop for wetting the bed (something she swears she doesn't actually do), but she seems mostly content checking books out of the library and daydreaming about sending messages into space. But wouldn't you know it: one day Christmas overhears a visiting NASA scientist explain that the winner of that year's Birdie Scout Jamboree will get that exact opportunity: NASA's preparing to launch the Voyager spacecraft, and they're looking to record a group of kids' greetings for the Golden Record that will be sent off with it. Eager to win that prize but denied access to the current Birdie troop, Christmas starts her own troop with a bunch of ragtag kids from the neighborhood and recruits Rayleen to be their troop mother, a position the put-upon secretary refuses at first, but eventually accepts because it will put her head to head with the mean girls' troop mother, Miss Massey (Allison Janey, dripping with fake sweetness).

The story follows a classic sports movie formula as our young heroes form an unruly team, complete a series of challenges to qualify for the competition, fight with the other troop, and head toward a final confrontation at the Jamboree. Think School of Rock meets Little Miss Sunshine with 100% more Southern accents, and you're in the ballpark. It all feels remarkably old-fashioned, including the fact that everyone learns valuable lessons about their friends and themselves along the way. There are fart jokes, dance numbers to David Bowie songs, and a Reservoir Dogs homage, but also genuinely touching moments that lean on the heart-felt emotions of the characters and their hopes and dreams.

It can all seem like a bit much at times, but I found myself falling for its charms more often than not, largely thanks to the cast – especially Davis, who isn't given much to do, but acquits herself well regardless. Mckenna Grace, who also played a precocious youngster in Gifted opposite Chris Evans, is fine as the wide-eyed protagonist, and the relationships she forms with her young pals take precedence over any major bickering between Janey and Davis's characters. The film's big conclusion works in spite of itself, aided by a stirring score and a series of earnest moments from the whole gang. This movie isn't going to rock anyone's world, but it's a sweet little movie with a wholesome message and a good-natured attitude that will almost certainly bring a few smiles to your face. Sometimes, that's good enough.

Amazon Studios will release Troop Zero sometime in 2019.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10