Mill Reef // 2007 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // May 10th, 2007
Life's a game. Roll with it.
The subculture of role-playing gamers is, it's true, woefully underserved by media outside its own fringe clique. It has been consigned to an occasional pop culture punching bag and unfortunate dreck like the Dungeons & Dragons movie and the brief Kindred: The Embraced television show. But gamer culture is due for some exposure in the wake of mainstream acceptance of The Lords of the Rings and the general embrace of "nerd culture" as a whole (there's more than a good chance the top movie on any given weekend these days was once a comic book). Gamers tend to be proud of their hobby and aren't ashamed of the peculiar loyalty it's inspired in them; there's nothing better to fill two minutes on a local newscast than an interview at a convention with somebody wearing faerie wings and holding a sword. It's an interesting hobby and an even more interesting subculture, as the proliferation of documentaries like Life with the Dice Bag and Uber Goober prove. Fellowship of the Dice attempts to go this one better by combining interview footage with actual gamers with a loose narrative about a gaming outsider invited to one particularly raucous game session.
Wild child Elizabeth (Aimee Graham, CSI) becomes restless after finding herself under house arrest and kept in line by an electronic tracking device. A chance meeting in a game store leads her to join a group of eccentric friends during their weekly playing of a non-copyright infringing version of Dungeons & Dragons. Through the course of the night, things go from bad to worse as Elizabeth must contend with the dysfunctional group of role-players, including persnickety game master Jasper (Jeff Coatney), nebbish actor Larry (Jon Collins), quiet Gwen (Lucia Diaz), blustery man-child Kevin (Jon Dabach), and Sanford (Alastair Surprise), booted from the Army because of his particular form of Tourette's (he swears in Dwarvish).
It would be nice to say that Fellowship of the Dice is the breakout gamer film that role-playing as a hobby has been waiting for -- but it is, sadly and simply, not true. As the "Reel Indies" banner under which it was released suggests, FotD is a true indie with all the merits and flaws implied. This movie has them all: acting that ranges from competent to crummy, awkward editing, tinny sound, dodgy titling, blurred-out logos that didn't clear legally; you name any woe that could occur on a shoestring budget, it's likely evident here. As such, the filmmakers do their best to make their low-budget charms work for them, positioning the movie as a faux documentary (instantly making bad sound, weird angles, glances into the camera, and visible mics forgivable) and using interview footage with actual gamers to break up and comment on the action. It's a good way to dodge common low-budget problems, but it's not consistent. The story is bookended with a framing device of Elizabeth discussing the game after the fact with her parole officer, which doesn't really fit in with the documentary format and feels imported from another movie (an alternate opening suggests that it was indeed added after the fact).
This is the basic problem with Fellowship of the Dice: it has grand ambitions, but doesn't pull them off. The script by Tom Hietter seems improvised by the actors, most of whom don't have a particular aptitude for improv. Graham's Elizabeth is called upon to look confused or bored, occasionally joining half-heartedly in group cries of "Huzzah!" For what's ostensibly the main character, Graham is called upon to say and do very little. The actors playing gamers employ a grab bag of tics and nerd clichés, in some cases as retarded or clearly disturbed (and remember that glasses = nerd). It feels as though they were given some leeway in the gaming scenes, perhaps to preserve the looser feel of the "documentary" and the general spontaneity of a real game session. Yet the alleged humor never manifests itself beyond promising premises (Dwarf porn! Sing-alongs! Annoying Things Game Masters Do!) that never develop into actual jokes. This failure hamstrings the scant plot; we're meant to see Elizabeth experience the ups and downs of the other players, only to find true, non-judgmental friendship in a group of fellow outcasts. When the moment of her understanding and breakthrough comes, it happens solely because that was what was supposed to happen at that point of the plot. The moment is complete with a Silent Bob-esque soliloquy -- not because it's earned, nor because the audience feels a genuine bond of acceptance and kinship with Elizabeth. Anyway, she most likely would have run in terror from Sanford's lecherous advances or Kevin's "Hulk smash!" tantrums (though a lot of her trouble could have been avoided had they just let her roll a higher level character. I'm just sayin'). We're given the bare outlines of everything: of dimensional characters, of jokes, of a story structure. It amounts to a disjointed movie that never quite coheres to become the movie it wants to be.
The interview footage prevents the gaming scenes from becoming one long, incomprehensible, one-act play. Perhaps as an olive branch to a larger culture that tends to regard gamers as curiosities in Ren Faire garb, the interviews elucidate some of the game terms and conventions in ways that, like the interviewed gamers themselves, are entertaining and often unsettling. The "real" documentary footage further confuses the "fake" documentary conceit, but the commentary from the real gamers is too rich a font of humor and insight not to use.
There's a decent amount of extras for such a small release. The alternate opening, in which Elizabeth directly addresses the camera and lingering questions about her house arrest, probably should have been included in the film if only to make the documentary gimmick more cohesive. The outtakes are the usual assortment of blown lines and laughter, while a trailer and production stills round out the disc. Picture and sound quality are fine for a micro-budgeted indie that takes place mostly in a living room; this is not Lawrence of Arabia.
Actual gamers will probably get more out of this than curious outsiders would. RPers love talking about their in-game experiences in ridiculous detail, and the lengthy game session portrayed in Fellowship of the Dice is really just several of those stories put on film. There are a lot of gags that hit (Larry's acting career) among all the misses (let's again cite the "dwarf porn") and those willing to run with Jasper and the gang's marathon game session will likely find their own gaming experiences reflected back in FotD's exaggerated mirror.
I can genuinely respect what the filmmakers were attempting to do here, but they never quite accomplish it. They aim for a loose, zany send-up of gamer culture with an ultimate lesson of acceptance and camaraderie (with a bit of education for laymen on the side), but the strength of the material simply isn't there. It's great that someone thought to use the fertile world of role-playing as a story backdrop, but FotD's shallow and not particularly funny jabs at the foibles of gamer culture would have been better served with a tighter script, a clearer vision, and some appropriate directorial wrangling of the actors. Fellowship of the Dice is a nice concept that suffers in the execution. Gamers will have to wait a while longer for a movie that effectively speaks of and for the hobby they love so much.
A roll of the dice says "Guilty," but any cleric of sufficient level can bring it back provided the party has enough GP to pay for it.
Review content copyright © 2007 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Reef
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Opening
* Production Stills
* Official Site