Sundance is a festival that largely prides itself on discovery, which often comes from the filmmakers who embrace experimentation. But the festival’s clear exception for this is the timeless crowdpleaser. You know the type: those quirky comedies where oddballs form some type of team, defy their insecurities together, and often do a silly dance. They don’t exactly “Risk Conflict” as the Sundance t-shirts proclaim this year, but offer progressive narrative focuses for stories that are wholly accessible.
Case in point: Bert + Bertie’s “Troop Zero,” which charms with its familiar qualities but gets the most charisma out of its heart. As a type of “The Sandlot” for young geeks, it’s dedicated to any young kid who dreamed about what’s in the stars, and especially for any young girl who has had people tell them what they should and should not be doing.
Like “Little Miss Sunshine,” and countless other Sundance-approved titles before it, “Troop Zero” is another story of underdogs, misfits, and oddballs reunited under a cause, featuring a pivotal dance sequence, this time about a scout troop that want to win a competition against other troops. The prize is being able to record their voices on a record that was sent to space (a real thing, as the end credits remind us). They face competition from other troops with higher numbers, but their biggest competitor is Troop 5, who are plainly (perhaps too plainly) not nice, and are essentially being groomed to be like their troop mother, Miss Massey (Allison Janney). But Troop Zero has got spirit, yes they do, and a dedication to get past their individual quirks to earn the single merit badges they need to qualify for the competition. All of this makes for “Troop Zero’”s sincere offering: many simple, however sugary scenes of these young actors bonding.
The beating heart of the story is McKenna Grace’s sparkling performance as Christmas Flint, whose love for space and the stars is instantly contagious. It's in the way that she lights up when hearing anyone talk about it, making her fixation on having her voice heard in space the drive for the rest of the story. Grace’s on-screen career is just starting, but she has a naturalness on camera that makes this the best role she’s had so far (and she’s been great in movies like “Gifted” opposite Chris Evans, and on Netflix's "The Haunting of Hill House"). But she’s not alone: Grace is joined by other vivid side characters, like the bully-turned-friend “human volcano” Hell-No (Milan Ray) and the destructive Smash (Johanna Colón), both of which relish the largeness of their characters and make for some strong laugh-out-loud moments along the way.
Viola Davis plays Rayleen, Christmas’ accidental mother figure who leads the troop of four girls and one boy, Joseph. Working for her father (Jim Gaffigan, in a great role), a lawyer who has rotten clients (“it’s not my fault they’re always guilty,” he hilariously asides), Rayleen falls into the position of being troop mother, and offers a strong contrast to the more conservative and villainous troop mother played by Janney (who plays her villain straight, as if she really does believe that the troop experience is just training for wives and mothers). Davis gets some great lines of her own, playing the straight woman to a rambunctious group of kids, but she has her own monologue about her past that shows her wanting to be defined by her own life, and not the people who have wronged her.
“Troop Zero” goes down easy like the best cinematic comfort food. But it’s a testament to the clear vision of director Bert & Bertie, and the extremely intentional, novelistic script by Lucy Alibar, that it has such ease, and never betrays its vital sincerity that lets its progressive idealism shine. “Troop Zero” is vivid where it counts: those tangy Georgia accents, its yellow and orange summery color palette and its vibrant batch of young actors. The movie comes from a specific place and it means something (and will mean a lot to the young audience that’s soon to discover it), even if it has crowdpleasing down to a science.
With the same overall goals of "Troop Zero" but a very different way of doing it, there's “Give Me Liberty,” which is just as much a melting pot as the country that inspired it. This one is what they might call "a whole lot of Sundance movie": it’s quirky, sentimental, progressive, over-the-top, timely, cheesy, obvious, vague, ambitious. Some whole sequences in Kirill Mikhanovsky's 110-minute directorial debut seem to be in the movie because they just feel right, whether it's extended scenes where we sit with one boisterous family, or moments where we get to watch disabled actors dance, sing, and make jokes like we rarely do on screen. Even if its many risks don't always work, "Give Me Liberty" is one of the most electric films I've seen in Park City so far, the debut of a fresh vision of the all-American crowd-pleaser.
When I tell you this plotline, try to imagine it as a mix of “Patti Cake$” and the Georgian dramedy “My Happy Family.” That is, the unabashed American indie crowdpleaser and the claustrophobic, chilly, at times sardonic European drama that speaks to universal pain. It’s about an aimless twenty-something named Vic (Chris Galust), who has a job driving a medical transport van in Milwaukee. Starting with his crazy morning of trying to wrangle his grandfather while helping clients, it becomes a close-quarters road trip movie but it takes place within one day. The unlikely friends for crowd-pleasing are a cadre of boisterous Russian relatives and a headstrong woman in a wheelchair played by Lauren 'Lolo' Spencer named Tracy (her character is much more than that, but the character’s inclusion into this script from Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen starts there).
The movie throws you into Vic's life and rarely offers you relief, even though its witty edits can make for some strong laughs. Instead, the movie wants to relate to you by detailing Vic's extremely stressful juggling of needy family members, and the duties of his job. He’s late to everywhere he goes, people are always yelling at him in the movie’s often chaotic soundscape (the MARC theater fitfully made it sound like I was surrounded by people yelling at me), and Mikhanovsky’s camera and cutting is effectively claustrophobic this side of Gena Rowlands in her kitchen in “A Woman Under the Influence.” Every time Vic has to make a stop, it becomes a massive production, usually elongated by the too-free-spirited middle-aged man named Dima (Maksim Stoyanov), while the family members are sincerely played like children who always have one problem to address. In “Give Me Liberty,” driving around Milwaukee becomes a Sisyphean task for Vic, with a bunch of babushkas and Dima on his back.
This detail, this scope, it all gives the movie an electricity that largely compensates for its lack of emotional stakes. Mikhanovsky creates many odd, vivid details, playing with how he defines his characters within the stressful nature of his comedy. The finest example might be Vic's mother, introduced later in the movie. She has to play piano for a recital that night taking place in her apartment. Scenes later, a Steinway is in her one-bedroom, with a full audience seated. Why? How? As a flourish of chaos, especially for a movie where there is no space from family, it's just one of Mikhanovsky's many animated choices.
Mikhanovsky directs this movie as if this were his one and only shot to say his peace, which gives it a massive, undoubtedly passionate quality. He clearly loves his many characters and their family spaces, with “Give Me Liberty” playing out like a very personal director’s cut. But his enthusiasm for some of these aspects is not unfounded: he has fascinating actors like Spencer and Galust, and when the claustrophobic camera takes a few seconds to breathe in their faces and what charisma they bring to this surprising celebration, it leaves a strong impression. There's also a warmth in the rambling movie's monologues, like with a bedridden man who speaks clearly to Vic (and the viewer) in bookending speeches about love and those around you, starting the movie off with a whiff of preachiness. But then by the end of the gripping American odyssey that is “Give Me Liberty,” the words are contextualized from someone who is incredibly sincere, sharing every part of his soul with us.