To an extent, I am a nerd. I have watched thousands of movies, read hundreds of comics and played a truckload of video games over the past two decades. Instead of socializing with relatives I prefer sitting in my room and playing video games or discussing The X Files with my other man-child friends. I’ve seen movies that made caricatures of nerds, but I’d never ever seen a movie about nerds – until I watched Zero Charisma.
Directed by the editors of Best Worst Movie Katie Grahams and Andrew Matthews, Zero Charisma is an utterly, darkly hilarious (and a wee bit tear-jerking) film that plunges into the bizarre, hysterical depths of nerd culture. This isn’t anything like The Big Bang Theory where all the characters are grossly exaggerated and the jokes are watery thin. The protagonist here literally has zero charisma – he’s an outcast, a burly overgrown dude who has nothing to show in life but his mastery of tabletop RPGs with friends who are even bigger losers than him.
Scott (played by Sam Eidson) is a modern day, comical version of Travis Bickle – he hates the idea of modern computer games that detach you from the spirit of social gaming, and he will go to any extent to preserve the sanctity of table top RPGs and being a ‘game master’. Every Thursday night is Game Night where he sits with his fellow nerds in his grandmother’s kitchen and initiates a medieval fantasy game where he acts out the cut scenes and the characters through an amusingly flimsy system of rules that he has formulated. Despite his age he plays passionately with his action figures in his bedroom and really hates it when someone unceremoniously walks in. He truly loves the spirit of the games and the tiny culture he is part of. Which is why he can’t take it when a new member joins in his team and turns out to be smarter and better versed with geek culture than him.
Directors Grahams and Matthews truly get nerd culture. When Scott plays with his action figures or moderates his games, an epic World of Warcraft and LOTR orchestra style music kicks in to reflect what Scott sees in his head during those moments. Two years ago in Bombay I met a celebrated filmmaker whom I worshipped like a God and he turned out to be a spineless hypocrite who can’t give two shits about cinema or his fans. I was reminded of this incident when Scott meets his idol, an ageing tabletop RPG enthusiast and is dumbstruck by his lack of tact for his fans and interest in the spirit of tabletop gaming.
Zero Charisma also beautifully establishes the contrast between its two central characters – Miles, the popular, successful, handsome, new guy in the team uses geek culture for fun for his own benefit, but for Scott it’s a disease he can’t get rid of. Scott’s family life is a depressing hell – his only means of escape is by indulging in the fantasy world of his games and listening to Death Metal. It wouldn’t have been possible to empathize with Scott had the character been played by anyone but Eidson – his comic timing is terrific and he brings this helpless innocence to his character, just enough to make you laugh at him but also reach out to him. It’s admirable that the filmmakers supplant the protagonist’s pity with humor and still manage to move you. And it’s even more incredible that this movie is accessible to those who aren’t even familiar with nerds, games, metal, dungeons and dragons.
There are many, many more things in Zero Charisma that make me sure that it will be remembered over the next twenty years the way we remember Clerks now. Like that Kevin Smith movie, this is a funny, tiny budget indie with observations that have never been made before and characters who’re part of a culture that’s always been a bit misunderstood. Real life hardcore nerds will see their own lives unfolding in front of their eyes, and they’ll be glad that someone finally made a movie about them instead of ridiculing them. For that, I give directors Grahams and Matthews 500 Experience Points.
(First published in DNA)