It’s almost certain that the dude-bros of the 80’s would be profoundly alarmed by the powerful position “nerds” have risen to over the past decade or so. “Nerds” and “nerd culture” are everywhere we look, so much so that recent debates have centered around the idea that some of the “nerds” out there (especially “nerd girls”) might be—gasp!—faking their nerdiness, just to fit in with the cool kids. Think about that. This is some serious Through The Looking Glass shit, my friends.
The wailing and teeth-gnashing online over the issue of “faux-nerdiness” has led to some genuinely interesting discussions, to be sure, but it’s hard not to find the whole thing kinda funny. It’s also no surprise to see that we now have a movie dramatizing this unusual turn of events…but it is a little surprising that the first film to take on this topic would end up being as well-informed, genuinely hilarious, and painfully relatable as Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham’s Zero Charisma is. My review (from the film’s universally-praised SXSW 2013 premiere) awaits you after the jump.
Imagine that a group of MIT scientists harness the power of time travel in the mid-80’s. After working through the tedious mathematics this exciting discovery required, they’re inclined to blow off a little steam with their newfound powers. So, they grab a stereotypical jock from the campus of a nearby community college (think: William Zabka circa 1985…go ahead and Google that, I’ll wait) and decide to have a little fun at his expense. Specifically, they will use time travel in order to (in scientific terms) “confuse the everloving shit out of him”.
I can imagine no better way to do that than by sending Johnny three decades into the future, right into the middle of Hall H during a Firefly panel at Comic-Con. Johnny—who surely smirked all the way through the Revenge of The Nerds screening he saw during the summer of ’84– would take one look at the crowd around him before feeling his sanity buckle irrevocably, and upon being brought back he’d be incapable of any activity other than rocking in place and muttering, “My god, it’s full of nerds”.
I’m willing to bet that Johnny’s friends would be confused (albeit a little less profoundly) by the story told in Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham’s first feature film, an indie comedy called Zero Charisma. The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this week and immediately started drawing rave reviews, and the growing pains that nerd culture has experienced during its rise in popularity are a focal point in Matthews’ hilariously trenchant script. If that’s all Zero Charisma was concerned with, there’d no doubt as to its timeliness (and all things considered, I bet even that version of the film would’ve been pretty damn good). But Zero Charisma elevates itself from “pretty good” to “great” by balancing its timeliness with a healthy dose of timelessness.
Sure, it’s set amongst a very specific sub-genre of nerddom (social outcasts who roleplay as conquerors during their weekly meetup to play a D&D-style RPG), but it’s also packed with universal themes and ideas that anyone—from veteran Game Masters to the millions of people who’ve never even seen a 20-sided die in real life—will be able to identify with. Ever been too hard on your friends? Known a total know-it-all who makes every social interaction a total bummer? Ever been obsessed with something others don’t understand or enjoy, or felt like someone was cooler than you? During the wildly successful IndieGoGo campaign Matthews and Graham partially funded their first film with, I recall conversations where people wondered if an indie comedy set in the world of D&D players might not be a little too niche for its own good. For a less savvy screenwriter, it probably would’ve been, but Zero Charisma puts those worries to bed early in its run-time.
Here’s the setup: Eidson plays Scott Weidermeyer (by my count, this makes him the third “Scott W.” with nerdlike tendencies currently living in Austin, TX), a Game Master living with his grandmother who hosts a weekly RPG session attended by four awkward guys that would probably balk at being referred to as Scott’s “friends”. When one of the crew decides to quit the crew’s long-running game in order to save a rapidly-crumbling marriage, Scott is forced to find a replacement. Following several failed attempts to find someone to fill that empty slot, Scott has a chance encounter with Miles (Garrett Graham), a seemingly harmless hipster-type who expresses an interest in rediscovering the RPGs he played in high school.
In a moment of desperation, Scott seals his fate by successfully lobbying (read: half-bullying, half-begging) for Miles to join his game. Almost instantly, the handsome, quick-witted, well-connected, and—perhaps most impressively– sexually-active Miles has Scott’s “friends” eating out of his palm: Miles’ “nerd credentials” don’t just check out, they’re impressive. Before long, the rest of the crew is wondering why they’re spending any time with the not-as-handsome, perpetually-insulting, and tantrum-prone Scott. I won’t say how everything shakes out from there other than to say this: from the moment we meet him, it’s clear that Scott doesn’t take loss, change or stress well… and the idea of losing his role as Game Master is the perhaps the most stressful life change Scott can imagine.
Zero Charisma doesn’t mock D&D players as some feared it would; clearly the film was created from a place of affection, and I’m hard-pressed to believe anyone would call the humor here mean-spirited (and even if they did, they’d have to admit that those jabs are self-inflicted by Scott via his own obnoxiousness). Interestingly enough, this shouldn’t lead you to believe that Matthews and Graham’s film ends on an upbeat, nerd-gets-the-girl beat (or that the script doesn’t go to some painfully awkward places). I’m still not sure I’m in love with the ending Matthews’ script called for here, but I’ll say this: I sure as hell respect it.
There’s a few things I’ve gotta make sure to mention before wrapping this up. First of all, Sam Eidson announces himself as a major talent here. I’ve seen other critics comparing his performance to a variety of performers, but—more than anyone else– I was reminded of the late, great John Belushi while watching Eidson’s performance. He’s got the same mastery of a super-expressive face, the same ability to careen from “wholly obnoxious” to “utterly lovable” (sometimes within two lines of dialogue), the same sort of charisma (no pun intended) that’s hard to stop watching. And, not for nothing but: speaking as a guy who considers the former Jake Blues to be an indisputable comedy god, that comparison’s one of the highest compliments I can imagine paying any performer. He’s brilliant.
Secondly, it’s worth noting how not low-budget everything here seems. The film looks like it cost two or three times what Matthews and Graham may have had to work with, the cast ten times as professional and convincing in their roles than you’d expect to find in an indie working with this budget…led by two first-time directors. This bodes very well indeed for Graham and Matthews’ potential going forward. From the razor-sharp script to the confident direction from a pair of first-timers to the stunning performance turned in by lead actor Sam Eidson, this is precisely the sort of low-key crowd-pleaser one hopes to wander into when attending a film festival (and if there’s any justice in the world, Zero Charisma will secure distribution and end up pleasing crowds elsewhere sometime soon).
My grade? A-