Movies about slovenly man-children in a state of permanent adolescence have thrived in the last decade, probably due to the growing number of slovenly man-children in the audience and in Hollywood. But few of these comedies (they’re almost always comedies) have explored the hierarchy within the world of immature adults, the varying degrees to which one kind of nerdiness is acceptable while another kind is for losers. Why is it cool to spend hours playing Grand Theft Auto V but not to spend the same number of hours with a tabletop role-playing game?
The answer suggested by “Zero Charisma” is that it’s not the activity itself that matters; it’s the person engaging in it. Whatever kind of game you’re playing, at the end of the day, it’s still just a game. Your participation in it only warrants scorn if your obsession with it brings out your worst personality traits. The film, a likably blunt glimpse into the geek microcosm by Austin filmmakers Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, boldly presents us with a seriously scorn-worthy main character, then roots around uncomfortably (and amusingly) in his neuroses. The payoff is lacking — for all the suffering he endures he ought to come away with more substantial lessons learned — but it’s a funny, no-holds-barred look at a world many viewers will recognize with satisfaction and/or shame.
Our disheveled hero is Scott (Sam Eidson), a portly, chin-bearded stereotype whose primary function in life is to serve as Game Master for a small group of equally dorky dice-rolling, spell-casting friends. With his teddy-bear physique, wide nose, and sloping brow, he looks like a fantastical creature from one of his games. Scott is prickly and sarcastic with his friends, especially Wayne (Brock England), a wispy-mustached skinny fellow who acts as his sidekick. Scott is bitter about losing his job at a gaming store, haughty toward anyone who doesn’t grasp the nuances and complexities of role-playing games as well as he does, and fussy when his grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd) — whom he lives with, rent-free — interrupts the game to make herself a sandwich. In short, Scott is hard to get along with. What’s worse, he thinks he’s a jovial, good-time guy.
His insular world is shaken up by two developments. One, his flighty absentee mother (Cyndi Williams) returns with her well-meaning fiance (Larry Jack Dotson), rekindling old resentments between mother and son. But this takes a backseat to the greater crisis: Miles (Garrett Graham), a new addition to the gaming group who’s hipster-cool, physically fit, and has a pretty girlfriend. Everything Scott and his buddies are into, Miles is into it too — yet somehow he’s better at it than they are. Scott is furious with jealousy at the way Wayne and the others fawn all over the newcomer. What does this guy have that he doesn’t?
The film has a “Napoleon Dynamite” vibe at first, both in the scenario (unaware doofus who lives with his grandmother; Wayne is a version of Napoleon’s brother Kip) and in the way the characters are treated with what feels like a mixture of disdain and affection. But the point of “Zero Charisma” isn’t to mock the gaming world. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess from watching it that the filmmakers are gamers themselves. The details in the dialogue, the pecking order among the characters — it all has the air of authenticity. There’s a brief, subtle joke about in-depth fantasy-game knowledge being no better or worse than statistic-heavy sports geekery, and some digs at hipsters who dabble in nerd pastimes without committing to them.
Sam Eidson is terrific as Scott, walking the line between being a pathetic buffoon and being a relatable young man with issues. The movie is sloppy in its treatment of Scott’s relationship with his mother; we never get a firm grasp of what went wrong or how it pertains to Scott’s current situation. But that’s in the periphery anyway. At the center is this funny, uneven story about a misfit among misfits, a rough-edged character who just might become a new cult hero.
B (1 hr., 26 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.