Zero Charisma

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/29/13 13:38:55

"Well-made, but that title might actually be a positive spin."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If I were the type of person to walk out of movies (and could have done it without disturbing the rest of the audience), I would have bolted "Zero Charisma". That's not to say it's a terrible movie; it's actually perhaps too effective. Its main character is an awful person, and this movie gets across quite perfectly just what a chore it is to be in his company. You can't really fault the job writer Andrew Matthews and co-director Katie Graham do, and Sam Eidson is dead on as self-centered, obsessive game master Scott.

Scott has been running a Dungeons and Dragons-like game of his own invention from his kitchen table for years, though he suddenly finds a hole in it when one of the players quits, as the game is taking too much time from his troubled marriage. A replacement player is found in Miles (Garrett Graham), and while he looks like the rest of the nerdy gamers on the surface, he's a confident and successful pop-culture blogger and an immediate threat to Scott's dominance of his circle. Oh, and the kitchen table where they play isn't Scott's so much as his grandmother's, and when Wanda (Anne Gee Byrd) falls ill, that brings his mother Barbara (Cyndi Williams) back into the picture, which is a whole new set of issues.

There has been something of a transformation in how "nerds" are perceived in pop culture over the past decade or two, as high-tech success stories accumulate and the campy sci-fi and fantasy that earned its fans mockery has become something more sleek, professional, and mainstream Teens and twenty-somethings with refined senses of irony subvert traditional conceptions of what is hip for fun. Say "nerd" or "geek" and many will have an image much more like Martin jump into their heads than the negative stereotypes. And sometimes, that can make things worse for the genuine outcasts, as they feel patronized as well as ostracized, or like the one thing that's theirs is being taken away by the folks who don't need it.

That's what we see with Scott, and there's no question that Sam Eidson is rather excellent in the role. What may seem rather theatrical and actorly at first turns out to be a fairly good representation of the character's puffed-up and often insufferable personality, asserting superiority through what he thinks is magnanimity, with legitimate anger often quickly giving way to tantrums. This sort of obsessive will be very familiar to many viewers (and if we're honest, occasionally an uncomfortable mirror), and Eidson nails it. He's not the only one; Brock England scores a direct hit as the friend who is meek enough to allow himself to be bullied, and Garrett Graham does a very nice job of tapping into how, for as much as he seems cheerful and well-adjusted, Miles also has a need to be the alpha among betas.

The trouble is, most of these characters and the movie as a whole are so aggressively unpleasant that it's fair to wonder what the point of it is. With few exceptions - most notably Brock England's passive best friend - everyone seems to be nasty and disagreeable; even the guy meant as a sort of a Gary Gygax surrogate is played as kind of snarky and mean. Barbara's finacÚ Bob, arguably the nicest character in the movie, is often played as a fool for at least trying to be kind to the people around him. In some ways, it's kind of admirable that Matthews & Graham play it this way - it would be easy to have Anne Gee Byrd dial things back to "sassy granny", for example, or to have Scott reveal some brilliance that makes it clear why people might give him a second chance, but real people are often more prickly than that..

It adds up to an ugly scene with no promise of escape, and while there is a turning point of sorts for Scott, it's very late and not really the result of a decision on his part. There's no time to build up after bottoming out, which renders the last few scenes kind of hollow, even if they do have one or two of the movie's best jokes. Those moments do kind of reinforce how, atmosphere aside, Graham, Matthews, and company have done a very nice job of putting Zero Charisma together: It's unmistakably low-budget but never looks slipshod; this is how you want an indie shot on real locations with a mostly-local cast and crew to feel. The jokes are authentic, and often sold well enough to work even when the rest of the movie is putting one off.

In fact, "Zero Charisma" does enough well as to make me second-guess myself: Am I being shallow for wanting a main character I can genuinely like? Did I just get up on the wrong side of the bed and hold missing the other movie playing at the same time against it? It certainly wouldn't be the first movie to leave me cold because the right mood didn't coincide with the opportunity to see it. All of these are possible, but there's not getting around that I wanted out, and sticking it out didn't turn my opinion around.

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