Review: Zero Charisma
Some men obsess over women, others over sports, and still others over plastic orc figurines. As far as mass appeal goes, the odds are against the latter group—but not enough to keep young directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthew from making their first feature, Zero Charisma, about a clan of fantasy gamers whose love of make-believe sorcery did not come to its merciful end with puberty. Unfortunately for men of their age, such deep devotion is less endearing than bizarre, and the stakes are dangerously high. In an early scene of gameplay, trials laid by a fictional goblin queen are left unresolved: the get-together ends early when a wife calls and threatens divorce, and a player walks out on their three-year-long game for good.
This incites a frantic search for a replacement player, headed by the haughty mastermind behind the whole fantasy system, Scott (the talented Sam Eidson), with assistance from his docile sidekick Wayne (Brock England). For a little while the film unfolds smoothly, a positive feedback chain of punchy one-liners and zany characters. One of the best is Nana (Anne Gee Byrd), Scott’s grandmother and housemate, whose wheezy gripes slam her grandson with the blunt force of a carburetor. Like a compilation of related sketches, each scene comes back to the same thesis: the world is a tough place for dorks, so you had better adapt.
If this were a Judd Apatow film, the key to survival would be to tap into a distinct strain of nerd charm, which has proven remarkably appealing to on-screen heroines and moviegoers alike. But that is not a viable option for Scott, our protagonist, whose hairdo makes him resemble a portly version of the fawn from Narnia. In an interesting reversal, our most fitting Apatovian antihero—the suspiciously adorable Miles (Garrett Graham)—fills the role of the enemy. He arrives at the round table as the perfect geek incarnate, armed with a highly successful blog for nerds and frisky girlfriend (Katie Folger), and it does not take long for Scott to fall out of favor among his friends. Nor does it take long for Miles to double-cross them all. So we are left wondering: is there any cinematic appeal reserved for true weirdos, or only weirdos with a nice face and hidden talents?
You might say that Zero Charisma takes a realist stance on the familiar slacker comedy. It sternly refuses to offer reprieve to its main player, or at the very least, to wrangle his obnoxious ego. Graham and Matthew’s past film experience is in documentary, and the cinematography reflects it: shots track Scott from behind in the grocery aisle, pick up on subtle expressions around the game table, hover in the corner of his bedroom during a pitiful Kane-like tantrum. It is as if we are being offered exclusive access to what really goes on in the fortress of dorkdom.
The trouble is, this point of view feels burdensome when we realize the hopelessness of the situation for Scott. His social skills aren’t just bad, they are deplorable: he must have some diagnosable condition that inhibits him from connecting with others. While the story makes some attempts to make us feel pathos—for example, by introducing Scott’s cheerful but uncaring mother (Cyndi Williams), who apparently abandoned him when he was a kid; and by making Nana have a stroke, which only seems to improve her sense of humor—the characters remain too rigidly one-dimensional to seize our sympathy. By the end, the will to laugh or cry gives way to a cringe impulse. I personally ended up wringing my hands, wishing I had seen a film titled Enough Charisma to Function.