geekpediaCartazZeroCharisma[xrr rating=3.0/5]Can a nerd ever really be cool? In recent years, the concept of nerdiness has not only exploded into pop culture, it has jumpstarted a unique identity crisis among people of a certain age and set of interests. After all, the nerd stereotype has long been established: socially awkward, physically underdeveloped, often mustached, usually bespectacled white men who live with their parents and obsess over comic books and games. Ever since the title of “nerd” has seeped into our culture, the truth has differed from the generalization. Nerds can be hipsters. Nerds can be female. Nerds can have style and fulfilling lives outside their fandoms. But to the old guard, this sudden inclusivity to a stereotype defined by their exclusion from the mainstream can be seen as a threat, an invasion into the one bastion of security left to a person without social skills. Zero Charisma tackles this subject head on, framing it between the perceived conflict of a maladjusted tabletop gamer and the latest addition to his long-running campaign.

Directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews (who also wrote the screenplay) waste no time before positing the lead of their film as the most stereotypical kind of nerd. Scott (Sam Eidson) is an overweight, surly young man, clad in a pentagram-emblazoned duster and a single fingerless glove that wouldn’t suit Michael Jackson, let alone an obsessive role-playing gamer with a beef against World of Warcraft. He lives with his hectoring grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd), was acrimoniously fired from his job at the local RPG shop and seems to only find joy in his weekly game night. But even that is a kind of tainted pleasure; as Game Master of a tabletop system of his own design, it’s not so much a fun evening between his few friends than an opportunity for him to utterly dominate other nerds with even less status than himself and wax apoplectic at the slightest sign of rebellion or individual thought. Once he loses a longtime player and an interview process for a replacement falls through, Scott settles on Miles (Garrett Graham), a handsome, cool young man with a popular geek website and (gasp) a girlfriend.

Zero Charisma irregularly shifts between a character examination of Scott and a much broader look at two different kinds of people drawn to an activity. To their credit, the co-directors slowly fill in the blanks in Scott’s life, gradually building a little sympathy for their protagonist while never losing sight of the fact that he’s a terrible misanthrope. They also have a ringer in Eidson, who makes the most of a role that requires him to be both a hulking bully and a wounded, angry manchild. But when the one-sided conflict between Scott and Miles comes to a head, the movie has a tendency to go cartoonish, with Scott acting less like a believably antisocial person and more like a gibbering fool. For every subtle moment of the film (the decision to make Miles an actually knowledgeable nerd and skilled player, rather than day-tripper, is an inspired one), there’s a corresponding moment of overplaying its hand. In particular, an interlude that abandons the domination/submission subtext of Scott’s relationship with his best friend, Wayne (Brock England), and essentially becomes a rape scene is so blunt that it actually drags the film down.

It’s virtually impossible not to compare Zero Charisma to Big Fan, Robert D. Siegel’s masterpiece of misanthropic fandom. While Graham and Matthews’s film doesn’t achieve quite the aching grotesquerie of Patton Oswalt’s Giants-cheering schlub, it uses much the same approach to examining the curdling effect an insular, obsessive hobby can take on a life. Both deal with subjects that people view as pastimes, while their protagonists see them as their whole reason for existing. Zero Charisma goes a little too heavy-handed to quite show Scott (and others like him) as more than a stereotype, but at least it’s not mocking him. It doesn’t condone the kind of person he’s become, but it does try to make you understand how it happened.

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