Firstpost at Sundance: The unbridled sweetness of Troop Zero and the not-so-sweetness of Honey Boy

Prahlad Srihari

Jan 28, 2019 15:38:12 IST

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival runs from 24 January to 3 February and Firstpost is at the quaint ski town of Park City, Utah to bring you the latest news, reviews and interviews from America's largest independent film festival. 

The onset of the diabetic epedemic

 Firstpost at Sundance: The unbridled sweetness of Troop Zero and the not-so-sweetness of Honey Boy

Allison Janney and Viola Davis appear in a still from Troop Zero by Bert & Bertie, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Curtis Baker.

In perhaps the most memorable scene of the comedy drama Troop Zero, a group of five young oddballs — the single-minded, alien-obsessed Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), her androgynous best friend Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), one-eyed evangelist Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham), and local bullies Hell-No (Milan Ray) and Smash (Johanna Colón) — are seen dancing endearingly to David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' at the annual Jamboree. But not many in the audience see it that way — as they burst into laughter, mocking the maverick fivesome. How they brave the derision and contempt in unison in the following moments will genuinely warm your hearts and offer reassurance that there is hope for this world yet. Bert & Bertie’s new comedy is such a disarmingly sweet film, you might need a few insulin shots to recover from it.

The film is set in Wiggly, a rural 1970s Georgia town that is surprisingly pretty woke for its time. Christmas, the cheerfully named eternal daydreamer, fantasises about life in outer space — where she believes her recently deceased mother has become a star and continues to watch over her. When she hears that the winner of the Birdie Jamboree will have their voices recorded on NASA’s Golden Record being sent to space, she recruits a makeshift troop of misfits, with guidance from her father’s (Jim Gaffigan) reluctant secretary Rayleen (Viola Davis). But their journey is pushed to the limits with setback after setback and Christmas and her friends must contend with a more accomplished Birdie squad of snooty, intimidating girls led by the hoity-toity Miss Massey (Allison Janney), if she is to realise her dream.

Troop Zero breezes along with an interesting mix of droll (courtesy the kids and Gaffigan) and deadpan (courtesy Davis and Janney) humour. But it suffers from a bad case of the cutes. Its generosity of spirit and acute adorability in fact swamps its flaws. Some of its supporting characters fit into neat, preset sitcom archetypes. While local bully Hell-No turns out to be a prickly pear, characters like Joseph, Anne-Claire and Smash are too one-dimensional and defined only by their oddball characteristics. It also tries too hard to anatogonise Miss Massey's group of arrogant Birdies, even though we know they're meant to serve as the foil.

The kids have been well-cast and do a solid job to say the least but it's veterans like Davis, Janney and Gaffigan, who are often the real scene-stealers. Bert & Bertie balance the offbeat tableau with some sincere, purposeful scenes without getting all needlessly sappy. Troop Zero a genuine crowd-pleaser that champions all the underachievers, ne'er-do-wells and misfits of the world.

Directors: Bert & Bertie
Cast: Viola Davis, Mckenna Grace, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps, Charlie Shotwell, Allison Janney
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Exorcising demons through meta-cinema

Noah Jupe in Honey Boy. Courtesy Sundance Institute

Noah Jupe in Honey Boy. Courtesy Sundance Institute

Before he became meme-fodder and a TMZ favourite with all the bizarre performance art, bad-boy behaviour and other off-screen antics, Shia LaBeouf had the makings of a veritable Hollywood star. But, as we all know, things didn't quite work out according to plan. With Honey Boy, a PTSD therapy session masquerading as a semi-autobiographical drama, LaBeouf offers a snapshot into the helter skelter ride that was his expedited childhood — and how his toxic relationship with his alcoholic, rodeo clown father had far-reaching consequences in his adulthood.

Written by LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har'el, this beautifully unpleasant film chronicles the cycle of addiction, abuse and its lifelong scars with remarkable honesty. Noah Jupe (A Quite Place) plays the young Otis, a Shia LaBeouf surrogate, who is just starting out his career as a child television star in Hollywood. He stays at an extended-stay motel with his abusive father James (LaBeouf), who micromanages every single aspect of his son's life and career. Jumping back and forth in time between the 12-year old Otis and the 22-year-old alcoholic (Lucas Hedges) he turns into, LaBeouf walks us through traumatic memories from his childhood to rationalise, if not justify, his erratic behaviour and actions. While a lot of it borders on self-pity, its psychological intelligence and emotional undercurrents render a raw authenticity to the film's intimate meta-narrative.

How can one express the pain of loss, heartbeak or adversity if they've never experienced it in real life? As the 22-year old Otis, reluctant to begin his process of rehabilitation remarks, "The only thing of value my dad gave me is pain and you want me to get rid of it." While pain is an essential part of all our lives, it is more important to see how we deal with it and come through it. And LaBeouf seems to be exorcising all his demons with this confessional drama. During the Q&A session that followed the premiere, LaBeouf said: "It's strange to fetishise your pain and make a product out of it and feel guilty about it. I felt very selfish. I didn't go into this saying, 'I'm going to fucking help people.' That wasn't my goal. I was falling apart."

Director Alma Har'el, fourth from left, poses with actors from left to right, Laura San Giacomo, FKA Twigs, Clifton Collins, Byron Bowers, Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf, and Craig Stark at the premiere of "Honey Boy" during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

(From L-R) Laura San Giacomo, FKA Twigs, Clifton Collins, Alma Har'el, Byron Bowers, Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf, and Craig Stark at the premiere of Honey Boy during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

The acting in Honey Boy is top-notch across the board. Noah Jupe's performance has a certain wise-beyond-his-years maturity and it could mark the beginning of a lengthy, acclaimed career. Lucas Hedges continues to prove why he is an indie darling. LaBeouf sports an awful wig that makes him look like a poor man's David Foster Wallace, but that doesn't take away the sheer intensity of his cathartic performance as his father.

Honey Boy has many of the trappings and tropes of other dramas about addiction and abusive parents but its extremely personal and honest autobiographical nature separates it from the rest — especially because it is about someone as perplexing as LaBeouf. It's an unsanitised account of a still ongoing rehabilitation for LaBeouf. Rest assured, it is bound to be one of the most talked-about releases not just at Sundance but over the course of the year.

Director: Alma Har’el
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs, Martin Starr, Laura San Giacomo, Clifton Collins Jr., Byron Bowers
Rating: ★★★1⁄2

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Updated Date: Feb 08, 2019 07:16:37 IST