Judge Erich Asperschlager's resume is his character sheet.
"The natives of the Ungar mountains do not take kindly to interlopers."
Pop culture tastemakers would have us believe that the geeks have inherited the earth. Comic book movies hit theaters bimonthly, and TV is awash in surprisingly well-dressed "nerds" spouting Star Trek references. The trend has been met by clucking tongues, a good number of which belong to actual nerds who aren't happy their subculture has been appropriated by the mainstream.
While geeky interests have gained acceptance, there's only so much the general public is willing to accept. Nerds are defined by fanatical obsession to the minutiae of fringe subjects. Although that devotion often comes at the expense of broad social interaction, most nerds enjoy a rich life of passionate discussions and creative pursuits with like-minded folks. It's cool that comics have gained acceptance, but most movie nerds are pure fantasy. That's not the case in Zero Charisma.
Facts of the Case
Scott Wiedemeyer (Scott Eidson, My Sucky Teen Romance) is the inventor and dungeonmaster of a tabletop RPG he plays with his friends in the house he shares with his grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd, Project: ALF). Life isn't perfect, but he's happy in the game. All that changes when one player leaves the group to salvage his marriage, sending Scott on a quest to find a replacement. He invites a lapsed gamer named Miles (Garrett Graham, Cannibal Feast) to join their group, but it isn't long before the hip newcomer usurps his role as alpha nerd. Things get even worse when his estranged mother (Cyndi Williams, Computer Chess) and football-loving fiance (Larry Jack Dotson, Bernie) move in after his grandmother has a stroke.
Zero Charisma was written by Andrew Matthew, who co-directed the film with Katie Graham. The pair worked together on documentaries The American Scream and Best Worst Movie. Their first scripted feature was funded in part via the crowdsourcing site IndieGoGo and distributed by the Nerdist web empire—a modern movie made by harnessing the power of the internet and the passion of film geeks and self-professed nerds alike. While it suffers a little from stilted performances and indie plot trappings, it nails the characters. Matthew understands what makes Scott's group, and real folks like them, tick. The guys of Zero Charisma aren't the stylish nerds of The Big Bang Theory. They might be awkward in social situations, but within the confines of their group they are as rowdy and confident as any football team.
Zero Charisma gets nerd culture. It understands the way people who are marginalized and mocked by outsiders can snap into a crystalline social structure in the company of their own kind, complete with cliques, rivalries, and a pecking order. Among his gaming friends, Scott is on top. Their game—his game—isn't just a refuge from a messy home life and crummy job. It's his life.
The trouble begins when Scott invites Miles to join the game. He sees the stranger as a newcomer to be guided and molded. Too late, he realizes that Miles's passing interest in role-playing games and science fiction is a hipster affectation. Miles is successful. He has a popular website, famous friends, and a smart, attractive girlfriend (Katie Folger, Grow Up, Tony Phillips). The game that means everything to Scott is just a hobby of the moment for Miles. Even worse, Scott sees his friends being lured away by craft beers and the promise of "geek chic." Miles is the Hollywood idea of a nerd. Scott is the real thing.
Zero Charisma reveals the way cool kids appropriate nerd culture as a kind of tourism. Miles is a hipster who brags about his connections and easy access to sex. Miles doesn't respect the game. He doesn't share the players' passion for immersion in a fantasy world they've built week by week over three years. The rivalry between Miles and Scott gets to the heart of a growing conflict happening right now on the internet, as people who have spent decades ostracized because of their fringe interests bristle at being lumped in with fly-by-nighters whose nerdy interests don't extend beyond Marvel movies and Game of Thrones. Comic book conventions have become marketing events for mainstream TV shows, where professional models draw attention away from cosplayers who have devoted nights and weekends to hand-sewn costumes. Scott isn't a hero. He's brash, whiny, arrogant, and a bit of a bully to his best friend Wayne (Brock England, The Land of Shadowed Sand). But that doesn't mean he's not right.
The film falls into more predictable territory when Scott butts heads with his mother, who re-enters his life after his grandmother has a stroke. She represents the outsider's view of nerdy interests, mocking him for playing the same kinds of games he loved as a kid. Even her well-meaning fiance, Bob, just can't wrap his head around his life's work. They further push Scott to the breaking point, but the real battle in Zero Charisma is with the inauthentic Miles and the mirage of geek cool.
Zero Charisma arrives on DVD with a solid 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Shot in the living rooms, game shops, and fast food joints of Austin, it's got natural lighting and strong details even in standard def. Audio is available in both stereo and front-heavy 5.1 surround mix. The disc's lone bonus feature is two deleted scenes—"Catching Up With Mom" and "Scott's Imaginary Friend"—adding up to just over five minutes.
Zero Charisma goes where big studio films are too clueless to go. It takes indie dramedy to the realistic world of nerds and the games they play. A lot is made of the family struggles between Scott and his absent mother, but the meat of the story is his battle to save geekdom from hipster irony. While Hollywood repackages comic books as watered down mass entertainment, this film shows that being a nerd isn't a choice. It comes with passion and imagination, not soft drink tie-ins and post-credit stingers. As cool as it is that geeky pursuits dominate pop culture, Zero Charisma reminds us that when the fad passes, the real nerds will still be here, ready to roll the dice and reclaim the Lost Sword of Brynthar.
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