Young Star Mckenna Grace and Filmmakers Bert & Bertie Capture the ’70s in ‘Troop Zero’

Some films simply burst with a lovable energy. “Troop Zero” is one of those movies. An Amazon production set in 1977 Georgia it begins as a recognizable tale of young heroes attempting something beyond their means, but becomes a pleasant fable about identity. Much of its charm is due to its makers. Directing is female duo Bert & Bertie (Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson). They combine a tender sensibility with a great young star, Mckenna Grace, who brings maturity to even the most enjoyably cliché moments. The directors and Grace sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss the making of “Troop Zero.” 

Grace plays Christmas Flint, who gazes up at the heavens, pondering the possibility of alien life. Voyager 1 will be launched soon and Christmas finds that a local Birdie Scout Jamboree will select a winning team to have their voices recorded on the probe’s famous Golden Records. Christmas lives with her father Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan), who encourages her despite many locals seeing Christmas and her kind as weirdos. After all it’s the ’70s and real initiatives to promote women in science remain sparse. Christmas decides to try and recruit her own troop, which includes Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), who defines gender conformity, Hell-No (Milan Ray), who can take on anyone in a brawl, Smash (Johanna Colon), another tough spirit, and Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), a one-eyed evangelical and introvert. Defying the conservative Birdie mother Miss Massey (Allison Janney), the girls try to recruit Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis), who isn’t exactly kid-friendly but Christmas is convinced can lead them to victory. 

“Troop Zero” is written by Lucy Alibar, the playwright who penned the highly acclaimed “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Again she uses a young protagonist to combine the anxieties of childhood with the general, human will to reach a high goal. Every character has a wonderful quirk and it’s the adults who need to shake off their stubborn notions of a woman’s place in society. Amazingly enough, Grace, who has appeared in major films like “I, Tonya,” almost did not land the role. “I auditioned, it didn’t go very well. Then I was sitting around a few months later wondering, ‘hey whatever happened to that film? My mom said ‘you didn’t get that.’ I was pretty sad and then they ended up doing more auditions and I auditioned again,” she said. Once the role was secured Grace made some specific changes to fit the part, “I stopped wearing my retainer, because Christmas does not have perfectly straight teeth. Then I learned how to do a southern accent and I really studied the character. I remember the directors had me do this thing where we were in their office talking, they would leave the room and come back pretending I was now Christmas, asking me questions. It was odd but really, really fun.”

“We believe that stories have a way of finding you,” said Bert, “this was one of those where we were handed this script by a producer friend who said ‘I think this is your film.’” 

“We read it and said, ‘yes, that’s us,” added Bertie. “That was our childhood, our weird, outsider selves.” In particular “Troop Zero” is about the weirdness of being a kid in the 70’s, as adults still expect gender to be defined a specific way. Miss Massey even tells the troop their work as Birdies is preparation to become caring wives as adults. Freedom is defined by a scene where Christmas’s misfit troop dance around a campfire to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which becomes their song of choice for the jamboree. “Time period is one thing, but specificity was important. As South Africans we had to dive into 1977 in the American South and you see aesthetically we shoot that from a child’s perspective. There is a slightly off-center view of the world. We see Christmas’s optimism and the over-scariness of other moments that comes with that. We wanted to show a version of Georgia in the ’70s that Christmas would believe although the honest truth is the school we show wouldn’t have been mixed back then, there wouldn’t have been white kids with black kids. But we wanted to show that version of the world.”

“All the kids, during pre-production we got to know each other and we would play games,” said Grace. The camaraderie is evident onscreen in the natural way these outsiders bond, fight and sing. Yet for Grace getting into the time period was relatively easy. “I already knew about the ’70s, the ’70s is my favorite era. I love the music, the fashion. I even have hoop earrings on right now that have a very ’70s vibe. I was very excited to get to film in that era. I wanted to keep this weird little radio thingie. It was a round ball with an antennae and if you turned it a certain way it would pick up a radio station. It was really cool and I don’t know what happened to it.” As for working with Bert and Bertie, Grace’s enthusiasm instantly rises. “I had so much fun working with them, I would do it again. They are really special. They are amazing females. Plus it was fun doing a comedy, I usually do the big, dramatic crying roles.”

In addition to Grace the cast of “Troop Zero” boasts Jim Gaffigan and Viola Davis, who get the rare chance to act together onscreen. “We all wanted to see Viola being funny, she has a marvelously wicked sense of humor,” said Bertie, “she lets her down and goes up against Jim Gaffigan and it was great seeing them improv together. She improved really well. There was one little bit where we just let her go on.”

“Viola and Jim are such great actors, I loved them. It was fun getting to work with other child actors too, because I rarely get to work with other kids,” said Grace. “Just working with them was advice enough for me.”

“Troop Zero” with its misfit Birdies singing David Bowie celebrates the very innocence of being young and naïve, when you believe in anything while suffering judgement based on something as meaningless as what you wear. If some of it feels all too familiar it’s only because most of us have been there.

Troop Zero” begins streaming Jan. 17 on Amazon Prime.