Ethan Gilsdorf reviews Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews' darkly comic fable of nerdliness, rivalry and belonging.
Early in Steven Spielberg's 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Elliot, his brother Michael and his friends are seen playing a Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing game (RPG) around the kitchen table. We hear standard gaming banter. "You got an arrow right in the chest and you’re out ten melee points." "Don’t worry about it, Mike. I got Resurrection. I’ll bring you back." In wanders Mom who, like many clueless parents of the day, asks the gathering of wise-cracking, young males a classic question: "So how do you win this game anyway, huh?"
"There’s no winning," one of the boys replies. "It’s like life. You don’t win at life."
Touché. Yep, in life, there's no win. You just keep on fighting, leveling up, and trying to make your saving throws.
The indie film Zero Charisma, now playing in selected theaters nationwide, views this problem we all grapple with --- how to know success in life --- through the murky eyes of Scott, an anti-social, 20-something dude obsessed with fantasy role-playing games. Played by Sam Eidson with all the huff and bluster of a cave troll, our hero Scott is losing that battle with life for the win. Any win.
Zero Charisma is the rare mainstream dramatic film to interweave tabletop gaming into the DNA of its plot. To be sure, the portrayal of D&D and its players in the movies and TV has been a somewhat of a mixed dice bag. In E.T., the boys were "normal," well-adjusted kids. We didn't see them as poster children for the lowly nerds, nor locked in clique warfare. The same year E.T. was released came the TV movie Mazes and Monsters, in which a young Tom Hanks takes an RPG "too far" and has a psychotic episode. D&D bad! Not so with Freaks and Geeks. In the show's now-infamous "Carlos the Dwarf" episode, bad-ass Daniel (James Franco) jumps peer groups to play D&D with the ostracized geeks. "And the best part is," pitches Gordon, a denizen of the A/V room sanctuary, "you get to pretend to be somebody you can't be in real life." The game builds bridges. D&D good!
An episode of NBC's Community had a similar spin; students agree to play D&D to cheer up a depressed nerd named "Fat Neil." D&D has made similarly reverent appearances in Big Bang Theory and Futurama (via a cameo from now-deceased D&D co-creator Gary Gygax). There's also been more tongue-in-cheek takes. Mockumentary-style webisodes such as The Fear of Girls, The Gamers and its sequel The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, and most recently, One Hit Die, all spoof D&D players, their characters and the fantasy genre.
Zero Charisma focuses like a magic missile spell on its nerdy protagonist, and makes the empowerment-slash-escape RPGs provide integral to the storyline. Given that, viewers might keep an eye on to what extent first-timer directors Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham trade on negative stereotypes of gamers. Scott is a gamer. Scott is a loser. Gamer equals loser. In the nature vs. nurture vs. Lurker Above debate, which is to blame?
In Zero Charisma, we soon learn that Scott has been handed a cruel fate, not entirely of his own making. Our hero, or you might say anti-hero, suffers challenges. First, Scott is not the most attractive guy. With a hulking body, wide-set eyes, and comical tuft of beard, he resembles a troll right out of the Monster Manual. He dresses like a roadie for Anthrax. His fearsome presence extends to his anti-social personality: tempestuous, egotistical, self-deluded. One example: He's certain that the Wachowski Brothers have stolen his idea for their Matrix movies. Scott is a distasteful character.
Add, to this scintillating disposition, a sad-sack backstory. Scott's mother abandoned him as a teen. His dad ... well, we're not sure what happened to dad. Other siblings? Ditto. Upping the ante, our hero has recently lost his job at The Wizard's Tower, a hobby game shop, and now works as a delivery guy for a fast food joint called Donut Taco Palace II. "This is temporary," he reassures an ex-colleague, "until I find a publisher."
Of course, Scott is working on a "fantasy rule system of my own design." He's certain superstardom in the gaming world is just a publishing deal away.
If his life hasn't exactly turned out the way he planned—if he had a plan at all—at least Scott isn't portrayed as a victim. He's no wuss, continually in danger of having his underwear pulled over his head. But his character barely avoids the hackneyed idea of the geek living in his parents' basement. Instead, he lives with his ailing Nana (Anne Gee Byrd). Barricaded in a bedroom plastered with posters of dragons and thrash metal bands, Scott spends his free time head-banging and punching the walls.
With a touching attention to detail, he paints miniature figurines of dwarf warriors and evil goblin queens, and enacts their fantastical adventures with dramatic voices. "You will pay for your betrayal, Morgon --- with blood!" he intones, alone in his room. "Oh Elrich, forever the hero. But all your posturing will not save the life of your king." His passion is the game. He sinks countless hours into plotting the next adventure for his gaming group: Martin (Vincent Prendergast); Leonard (Brian Losoya); and Wayne (Brock England), who Scott considers a buddy (sort of).
But the intrusion of adult responsibility is always a threat. In one scene, Scott's Nana interrupts game night. "You promised you wouldn’t disturb the game," Scott gripes. "You and your friends sitting in there pretending to be elves and fairies and shit," Nana shoots back. "That's what's disturbing." His grandmother calls them the "nerd herd."
When Scott's grandfather was his age, Nana reminds Scott, he had a house, a family and a company. Scott's a failure in all the relevant planes of modern man's existence: work, friendship, and romantic relationships. He's built up and relied upon his facade of overconfidence and anger. Being the know-it-all Game Master for his weekly gaming session is his Armor of Protection. Beneath it all, Scott is wounded.
That armor begins to fall apart with the intrusion of two real-world events. First, the return of Scott's estranged mother, Barbara (Cyndi Williams), who wants to sell the house and ship her Nana off to nursing home. "Are you still playing your little dragons game?" Mom scolds Scott, in a cruel reversal of the D&D gang meets mom scene in E.T. With that line, we begin to enter the Abyss of Shame. The door to the Tomb of Fear and Self-Loathing creaks open.
The other plot-twister comes when one of the gamers backs out of the group (to rescue his marriage), forcing Scott to recruit a new member: Miles. "I used to play D&D back in high school," Miles (Garrett Graham), a hipster wearing thick black nerd glasses and cowboy shirt, meekly announces. "I thought it would be fun to get back into it."
Given the hipster-ization of D&D and other nerdly hobbies, and the way older players are flocking back to their tabletop passions of yore, the character of Miles rings true. But is he a true hardcore nerd, or a poser? Traditionally, Hollywood movies have traded deeply on the jocks against the dorks divide: think Revenge of the Nerds and Back to the Future. Here, Zero Charisma taps into a new source of tension in the geek community: nerds vs. hipsters. The nerd herd loves the funny, cool, beer-drinking antics of Miles, who challenges Scott's authority. He's also got "acceptable" nerd cred a mile long: Miles is the editor of a popular pop culture blog, he's a comic book artist and, for extra experience points, he's got a girlfriend. Naturally, Scott feels threatened. Perhaps Miles is a stand-in for all the "new nerds" finally cashing in on the newfound popularity of geek culture now that it's safe and out of the closet. In Scott's estimation, savvy faux nerds like Miles overshadow the real-deal, uncool, nerds still stuck in their metaphorical basements.
For his part, Scott considers himself a misunderstood artist and genius, working in a medium most would consider a ridiculous mode of expression. Like lots of apologists and upholders of D&D (this writer included), Scott infuses D&D with a cultural significance. He trashes modern video games. "You might as well be playing connect the fucking dots. No human interaction," Scott lectures a young player. "When we play tabletop RPGs, we are reawakening one of man's oldest traditions: communal storytelling. Just as, thousand of years ago, early man gathered around the fire, developing the myths that defined their culture, so we sit at the table, building words, building characters, building heroes. Seeing through them, as through a prism, our own fears, our own goals. Ourselves. Think your Xbox can do that?"
That naive passion is endearing, and makes Scott's character somewhat redeemable. If only Scott was as articulate about his own troubles. For even if they are not entirely his fault, the filmmakers' decision to create an altogether unpleasant protagonist presents a huge challenge. Why should we care about such an asshole? His lack of self-awareness grates even on the most sympathetic viewer. This all makes the extent to which Scott tries to change paramount to our investment in the film.
Much also falls on the sturdy shoulders of actor Sam Eidson, who performance as Scott carries the weight of Zero Charisma. Unfortunately, Eidson doesn’t show much range. Perhaps the fault partly resides in the story. Screenwriter Andrew Matthews wields not the subtlest of pens. Aside from one scene of Scott breaking down, the script gives its hero limited emotive opportunities. He's largely a one-note "angry nerd," a raging grump wrapped in an ego trip. I wanted to see him end up in more nuanced places, more with his guard down.
As the plot advances, the stakes are raised for Scott to either alter his misanthropic ways, or simply continue forward, stumbling from one inept, humiliating interpersonal disaster to the next. I won't give away the ending, but on Scott's trip to rock bottom, he does takes some tiny (if blundering) steps in a new direction. Thankfully, the film doesn’t end with some out-of-character quantum leap, like Scott scoring a girlfriend.
Along the way, there's enough humor to keep insiders entertained. For example, a fictional Gygaxian "godfather of tabletop gaming" named Greg Goran comes to speaks at the game store, and ends up insulting the audience. There's also a clever moment where Miles solves, once and for all, a nerd battle concerning which is faster, the USS Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. But for non-gamers, these bits will probably fall flat.
Now to that cliché of the inept gamer. Do the character types in Zero Charisma become stereotypes? The film both relies upon and harpoons these conventions. Scott's obsessive gaming habits prevent him from dealing with the "real world," but his woeful luck can't be discounted. He's been abandoned. He's got no skills. He's broken. Who would blame his inward turn to find success and solace in fantasy?
We've all met people like Scott: people who don't pick up on social cues, who don't seem to empathize, who find keys to human interaction in bullying or detaching. Scott can't find success through acceptable channels. He's powerless in the game of life. But the same is true for many of us. It's easier to sneer at Scott, because of his love for D&D. Less so because of his pain, in a world not constructed according to his rule system.
It will take a lifetime of work for a guy like Scott to break down his defenses, but having a enemy helps. When Miles becomes, in Scott's words, "my nemesis," it plays perfectly into his fantasy of vengeful heroes and climatic battles. Sometimes, we all need a motivating nemesis to shake things up, and force ourselves to do things we wouldn't think we'd be capable of in real life.
Now roll for initiative.
In addition to a roll-out in selected cinemas nationwide, Zero Charisma is also available for viewing on VOD, iTunes, and other on demand platforms.
Published 7:32 am Mon, Oct 28, 2013
About the Author
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, BoingBoing.net, PsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.
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