Thursday, October 17, 2013

ZERO CHARISMA Is Great Geek Cinema


- Zero Charisma is a great little indie comedy that is pretty much a must-watch if you are, were, or have ever been, at all, a nerd, geek, or dork. It's one of the best and truest movies about geekiness ever made. Why do I say that? Because we live in a world where geeks are cool, where everyone claims to be a geek, and where the most-watched comedy on TV is a show about geeks - albeit a super-cartoonish and sort of obnoxious regression to the days of Steve Urkel. Between the adorkable nerds of The Big Bang Theory and the hipster-cool nerdiness of The Nerdist lies a more complicated reality: nowadays, being a geek can be cool, sure ... but there's also, often, painful reasons why people develop geeky obsessions. That, I think, is why there's sometimes a rift between true-blue geeks and new-school hipster-geeks. Traditionally, nerds suffered for their status. They liked things that no one else liked. They were outcasts and punks. They were derided for their strange and decidedly non-mainstream passions. And ZERO CHARISMA pulls no punches in telling the story of an uber-nerd who clings desperately to the worst kind of geeky tendencies.

As played somewhat brilliantly by Sam Eidson, Scott is like a relic of an older era of geekdom. A big, hulking dude with a mismatched, squeeky voice, Scott dresses in 90's-style geek/goth metal gear, matching cargo shorts and black death metal screen T's with fingerless gloves and the kind of black duster trenchcoat that was frowned upon post-Columbine. It's easy to imagine that the 30-something Scott has dressed the same since high school. And it's easy to see that he hasn't changed much, in general, since those days. He lives with his snappish grandmother, and seems happy to let her do most of the household heavy lifting (and he pays no rent). His room is plastered with posters and figurines. He works at a dead-end job at a donut shop (he got fired from his previous job at a hobby store). And he lives for, above all else, his weekly game nights, in which he gathers his nerdy friends, and leads a Dungeons & Dragons-esque game of his own creation.

The game is Scott's baby. He spends his days working on scenarios for it, and refuses to ever miss it or let a weekly session get cancelled. To that end, Scott treats his fellow players less like friends and more like minions. When one of the players has to drop out of the game, in an effort to patch things up with his wife, Scott takes it as a personal affront - showing minimal sympathy. But a player dropping out sets the stage for the central conflict of the film: in search of a new player, Scott runs into Miles - a glasses-wearing geek who seems like a perfect fit for the game. But Miles, as it turns out, is a different breed of geek from Scott. Miles has a cute girlfriend, a swanky apartment, and Hollywood connections (through his work as a writer for the "Geek Chic" pop culture website). Miles is, in short, the picture of the modern hipster-geek, and in many ways the antithesis of Scott. While the two start out as friends, it isn't long before Scott declares Miles to be his nemesis.

ZERO CHARISMA walks a fine line in its depiction of Scott. On one hand, he's sort of a jerk. On the other hand, there's a purity to him that you have to sort of respect. There's no drive in Scott to be cool, and he isn't into what he's into because of anyone else. His passion comes from within, and hey, that's something to be admired. On the other hand ... Miles has drive, he has ambition, he knows what he wants out of life. And yet, there's something not quite genuine about him. He seems a little too pleased with himself, a little too smug. Miles' presence, in a way, makes Scott a bit easier to root for. Scott is the guy that got left behind in the great geek revolution. Through Miles, he begins to realize exactly how left behind he really is.

There's some great, understated humor in the film, but also a lot of heart. The feeling of authenticity in these characters goes a long way to making the awkward moments all the more wonderfully awkward, and the emotional moments all the more gutting. There's tons of great geek-humor: discussions about the relative speeds of various sci-fi spaceships, Scott's stubborn assertion that he came up with the idea for The Matrix, and the strange but hilarious relationship between Scott and his even nerdier best-friend, Wayne (who sports the geekiest mustache since Kip from Napoleon Dynamite). At the same time, the movie doesn't present the glossy, Big Bang version of geekdom. There's a real, undercurrent of hurt and pain that colors the movie. I'd compare it to TV's seminal Freaks & Geeks. Basically, Zero Charisma doesn't feel like a bunch of slick writers doing their version of what geekiness might be like. This one clearly comes from a real place in the heart of filmmaker Andrew Matthews.

The movie was crowd-funded and made on a low budget, but it actually looks really good. Matthews does a great job of capturing the smaller moments, but he also escalates things and gives the action a semi-epic feel as the story builds to a crescendo.

My guess is a lot of geeky-types who watch this one will see something of themselves in both Scott and Miles (I know I did, to an extent). And the way that Zero Charisma perfectly captures that dichotomy of nerdiness is pretty much pitch-perfect. For that reason, anyone who's ever felt even just a little bit geeky owes it to themselves to check out this gem.

My Grade: A-

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