Troop Zero is the kind of movie that a major studio would have made sometime in the ’90s. It’s inoffensive, mild, and a story about a bunch of outcast kids who band together and form an unlikely group of friends while the adults around them also learn valuable lessons. Today it’s an indie because major studios won’t make a movie with a low budget, but the mechanics are still the same. And while there’s not something outright wrong with that, here, it feels reheated and stale. There isn’t much imagination or daring to the relationships, most of the characters are broad caricatures, and the bland, underdog story structure takes Troop Zero to being a safe indie that ultimately feels forgotten before you even start it. Set in Wiggly, Georgia in 1977, the film follows young Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) who recently lost her mother and spends her nights looking up at the stars. When the Birdie Troops (essentially a stand-in for Girl Scouts) are offered the chance to be part of the Voyager gold album that’s being sent into space, Christmas sees it as a chance to connect with the memory of her mother. Christmas assembles a ragtag group including her friends Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), the religious Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), local bully Hell-No (Milan Ray), and Hell-No’s muscle, Mash (Johanna Colón). The troop is led by her father’s (Jim Gaffigan) reluctant paralegal (Viola Davis), who butts heads with a rival troop’s leader, the prim and proper Miss Massey (Allison Janney).
What’s maybe most frustrating about Troop Zero is how it seems terrified of just being honest with its audience and treating its characters like real people. Instead, it tries to echo that mold set so long ago by movies like Little Miss Sunshine where you have to be hip enough for the cynics but schmaltzy enough for those who want a feel-good story. That’s a tough middle-ground to hit, and rather than just tell a compelling story with interesting characters, directors Bert & Bertie adrift with what kind of film they want Troop Zero to be. You’ll have a scene where Hell-No and Christmas let down their defenses and become closer friends, and then you’ll also have a scene meant to parody the opening credits of Reservoir Dogs.
There are moments where Troop Zero connects, but those are few and far between. The film is at is best when Davis and Janney’s characters are allowed to just be people or when the film sits with Christmas in her grief. Somewhere lurking in Troop Zero, there’s a movie that’s not afraid to let its characters have difficult, complicated emotions and avoid contrived circumstances we’ve seen countless times before. Unfortunately, the movie seems more comfortable when it can throw on another David Bowie song or have a kid earn a merit badge in a fun way. And, though it may seem, I don’t have a problem with nice, light escapism. The problem with Troop Zero, though, is that it never finds the right tone to become that nice movie. It’s got a comforting, albeit familiar, message and some interesting characters played by talented actors, but it never comes alive because the film leans so heavily on saccharine moments that feel like a brute force way to your heart rather than earning an emotional reaction. It’s hard to see Troop Zero as “nice” when it comes off as so desperate for the audience’s affection. Cloying, hollow, and overflowing with cutesy quirks, Troop Zero is trite formula at its most exhausting and forgettable.
Troop Zero is streaming now on Prime Video.
Gretel & Hansel
It seems fair to say that the Brothers Grimm were appropriately named: fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, about a destitute couple of dying famine, who abandon their children in the woods to save their own lives, are already scary before a big, bad child-eater comes along. But sure enough, those poor children wander into the ever-so-tempting gingerbread house of a magical witch, who thoroughly intends to devour young Hansel, luring poor Gretel into helping prepare the meal. Transforming Hansel and Gretel into a horror movie is hardly a cognitive leap, and it’s been done before, but perhaps never as stylishly and intelligently as in Osgood “Oz” Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel. The latest from the horror auteur is full of severe production design and sensitive characterizations, and unsettling ideas about where fairy tales come from in the first place. Gretel and Hansel stars Sophia Lillis as Gretel, a teenager with only two options, as far as she can tell: she can be mistreated by men, or she can die of famine along with her mother and brother. When her mother finds out Gretel has chosen the latter, she takes an axe to the dining room table, sending Gretel and Hansel (Sammy Leaky) into the woods to fend for themselves.
Though it’s not a straight line to the witch’s house. Along the way, Gretel and Hansel encounter strange mutations and at least one character who seems to have stopped by on their way to another fairy tale altogether. The woods aren’t richly green; they’re arid and skeletal. This is no world for young children and young women, because, as Gretel and Hansel learn, their best hope is to find the young boy a job doing punishing labor and, for Gretel, some sort of husband. But as the two creep through their isolated states, it becomes a bit of a relief when they discover a nice-looking house, with a triangular construction that completely undermines any sense of architectural consistency with the rest of Perkin’s world. It’s worth noting that it is not made of gingerbread, but it is full of food: a whole feast has been laid out in the dining room, nothing suspicious about that, especially not when the owner of the mysterious home, Holda (Alice Krige), invited them to stay, and eat their fill, and escape the seemingly hopeless world outside her doors.
The second half of Gretel & Hansel is a creepy saga of temptation and empowerment, as Gretel finds herself repulsed but encouraged by Holda to embrace the inner strengths that everybody else told her were weaknesses. Who cares if the vast buffets of food she prepares every night seemingly come from nowhere, since she has no livestock or farmland to speak of? Who cares if Hansel is increasingly uncomfortable, starting to hear voices? What if Gretel actually wants to help the witch in the kitchen? It’s easy to get swept up in the bracing, pointed style of Gretel & Hansel. Cinematographer Galo Olivares frames the action amidst chilly landscapes and inside weird geometric buildings, keeping the audience perpetually off-guard. The witch’s house could be small and could be enormous, and the basement — let’s not think about the basement, except to say that production designer Jeremy Reed has followed Perkins’ stark aesthetic interests to a logical, striking, grotesque conclusion.
But the distinctive imagery of Gretel & Hansel all serves a single purpose: to put Gretel in a position where sacrificing morality for safety is a logical, even nurturing choice. Krige has the allure of wisdom in her performance, an undeniable power that stems from strength and experience, and unlike many movie villains, her rationalizations seem relatively rational based on what Perkins has shown us about Gretel’s options. Grotesque and wicked, undoubtedly, but arguably rational. As a fantasy, Gretel & Hansel is a delectably smart concoction, thoughtfully reevaluating the original tale, adding new layers of the ominous, and yet also keeping the story rooted in an unshaped, fairy tale past. As a horror movie, Perkins’ movie relies more on uneasiness than external threat, and demands a thoughtful audience’s mental energies instead of a rowdy audience’s popcorn-throwing jumps. Putting its emphasis on atmosphere and mood rather than visceral jolts, Gretel & Hansel can bring grateful rewards for those who tap into its unusual wavelength: as this aesthetic showcase brings lush beauty and new intelligence into an age-old nightmare.