Fantasia Film Festival: ‘Zero Charisma’ – one of the best American indies this year
Directed by Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews
Written by Andrew Matthews
This micro-budget, homespun geeksploitation comedy about a Metal-loving game master named Scott Weidemeyer, plunges so deep into the heart of nerd culture, it might just be the best Geek film in years. Zero Charisma simultaneously, ridicules and celebrates Dungeons & Dragons-style role playing through the eyes of a neurotic Game Master who lives in his grandmother’s house, works a lousy job at a donut shop, and spends all his free time as the supreme Game Master guiding his role-players through a journey of fantasy and adventure in a game he’s spent three years working on. However, when one of his buddies leaves the group after his wife threatens for divorce, neo-nerd hipster Miles (Garrett Graham) joins in, making Scott extremely jealous of the admiration his colleagues have for him. Tensions rise and friendships are tested as Scott finds himself caught in a spiral of rage and delusion, and is forced to take drastic steps to reclaim his honor, and his identity as the Game Master.
Directors of Zero Charisma, Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews (who financed the movie through Kickstarter after working on Best Worst Movie and The American Scream), create a compelling character sketch of Scott, and offer an incisive examination of the difficulties of being a nerd, part of a dying sub-culture which is losing out to the popularity of online computer gaming. But Zero Charisma asks bigger questions: are hipsters ruining perfectly good subcultures, and how does one “grow up” while holding on tight to their passion and hobbies which eat away at their free time? Even more, Scott suffers from an obsession. His game is his life, and when his “alpha nerd” position is threatened, Scott’s world comes crumbling down around him.
The film’s screenplay, by co-director Andrew Matthews, is a high wire act that balances portions of comedy and tragedy throughout, and strikes the right balance between celebrating Scott’s enthusiasm and criticizing his behaviour. Matthews’ script is incredibly nuanced and mature, easily avoiding stereotypes and caricatures. Instead Matthews opts to develop very authentic, naturally flawed, well-rounded human beings. Scott’s story creates moments of hilarity and pathos, resulting in a complex film that explores what it means to be an outsider. The film gently pokes fun at a certain brand of nerd culture without ever outright mocking it. A highlight comes midway through the pic when Miles finds something new to say about the eternal battle between Star Trek Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. However, it avoids being too niche by balancing those jokes with plenty of smart humour which doesn’t feel the need to rely on pop-culture references. Think Community’s “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” mixed with Juan Carlos Pineiro’s documentary Second Skin.
Even with the strong script, the movie only comes alive with Eidson in the lead, delivering a touching and multi-layered performance; and managing to be both charming and loathsome all at once. Here is a character you love and hate in equal amounts. Too often characters of this sort are hackneyed and one-dimensional but Eidson’s performance is too great to fall into the trap. What follows is a sensitive character study of a true anti-hero. Scott has obvious anger and abandonment issues (his mother abandoned him when he was eight) and his massive insecurity and utter delusion stops him from progressing in life. But he’s also a good hearted guy struggling with the hand that life has dealt him. He’s homely, overweight, in his 30’s and is, and always has been single. His bedroom is saturated with posters and action figures that signify his passions – and whenever he needs to vent, his anger management is dealt with, by violently headbanging to heavy metal music. When the movie ends, there’s no reason to believe that things will change for the better anytime soon. Unlike the RPG of his own creation, Scott has little, if no control of his life. The bumper sticker on his car reads “Because I’m gamemaster, that’s why.” If only Scott could channel his creativity, confidence and imagination when gaming, into his everyday life, he might just have the potential to be successful.
Recommended for those obsessed with films about obsessive subcultures – this consistently entertaining, character-driven comedy is sweet, effective and wholly touching. Hilarious, clever and featuring a breakthrough performance, Zero Charisma will find a cult following in gamers and non-gamers alike.
– Ricky D
The Fantasia Film Festival celebrates 15 years and runs from July 18th to August 7th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official website for the Fantasia Film Festival.