Posted on Friday, March 15th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
“What does Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons do when he goes home at night?” At a post-film Q&A for the role playing game dramedy Zero Charisma, co-director Katie Graham suggested that question, which is wrapped in so much potential comedy and tragedy, as a perfect description of the film. She couldn’t be more right.
Written and co-directed by Andrew Matthews, Zero Charisma premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival this week. It stars Sam Eidson as Scott, an overweight nerd who prides himself on being the Game Master of his weekly tabletop role playing game. The game isn’t Dungeons and Dragons, however, it’s a game of his own design. Scott focuses almost all his energy on it. So much so, that the game stands in for any semblance of a social life or career.
That scenario could have been played strictly for laughs or strictly for tears. Yet Matthews’ script and the performances he and Graham get from the actors help the film expertly tiptoe the line between the two. Scott’s story creates moments of hilarity and pathos, resulting in a relatable, complex film that explores what it means to be uncool.
Among Scott’s group of nerdy friends, he’s undoubtedly the leader: imposing, authoritative and creative. He also knows he’s viewed as a loser to the outside world, so he belittles everyone around him hoping to prop himself up. The facts that his family abandoned him to live with his grandmother and he works as a food delivery guy only bolster his anger. This recipe for disaster comes to a head when he meets Miles (Garrett Graham), a more modern hipster nerd who runs a popular blog. In Miles, Scott sees everything he wants to be, setting him off on a very bumpy path toward self-discovery.
Through all of this, Eidson’s performance is perfectly ambiguous. He’s the main character, so we want to like him, but he’s also a dick, so we start to hate him. The film charts many opportunities for Scott to change his ways and prove his worth. But he keeps failing, choosing to be the lone wolf instead of a member of the pack. By doing this again and again, the film creates a very interesting question about the nature of nerddom. Are you a nerd because of who you are inside or is it how people perceive you?
Zero Charisma isn’t all philosophical introspection and depression, though. Humor is a constant throughout, thanks in part to a very high pop culture IQ that’ll make fans of things like D&D, Star Trek or Joss Whedon very happy. However, it avoids being too niche by balancing those jokes with plenty of smart, non-nerdy humor along with the drama and complexity of the main character.
Much like a good role-playing character, Zero Charisma is all about that balance. Balance of tone, humor, and ideas. Everything about it feels just right. It never exactly rises above its aims, but it nails each and every one of them, like rolling a twenty on a 20-sided die.
/Film rating: 8 out of 10