I’ve always been a nerd, but I’ve always felt like I was hanging out on the outskirts of “being a real nerd town,” whatever that means. There always seemed to be an intense barrier to entry into the more interesting circles of this subculture. It feels like there is an intense breadth of knowledge about fantastical characters, imagined geography, alien technologies, and a myriad of other things connected to a wide array of properties, both obscure and popular. Now, I’m no slouch when it comes to “useless” knowledge, but I’ve met some folks throughout my travels that let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t as “nerd smart” as they were, but I’d still hang around, because even though I might not “belong” I’m still drawn to these people. They’re interesting, and, more often than not, it helps that their knowledge base isn’t limited to the before mentioned subjects. They tend to be some of the smarter people I’ve met in general. Their attention to fictional detail allows for a wider perspective and an “outside of the box” way of thinking about things, a level of pragmatism that most folks aren’t able/willing to engage in, and in that I find a good amount of kinship within these communities, when given the opportunity to visit, or act as a friendly “tourist,” of sorts.
That dynamic is changing though, as “nerd culture” becomes more and more visible, and, as a consequence, more main stream. Being a “nerd” just doesn’t carry the same stigma that it once did. Well, for most. There still is the “real nerds,” however allusive, still roaming about family basements, creating worlds, and throwing down some 20 sided dice. With the proliferation of nerd properties become more of a thing, you get a type of segregation. “Real nerds,” and “new/fake nerds.” It’s self a self imposed segregation, mostly on the side of the “real nerds.”
Popularity of a thing can make it less special, less unique, and it can make those that were once part of an exclusive club feel left out of their own interests. Sure, a whole swatch of new people are aware of the things that these “real nerds” hold dear, but they don’t care as about it as much. They don’t have the knowledge base to hold an in depth conversation about these things, and that’s what used to be “special” about being aware of these things in the first place. These things acted like a type of identifier, and there was a comfort in knowing that there were “others” like you. It’s this cultural shift that is at the heart of the film, Zero Charisma.
First and foremost, Zero Charisma is a character study, more than a film about the plight of the modern “real nerd.” It’s more interested in showing you how a person like the main character, Scott, thinks, and how his mind set has developed. He’s a controlling jerk, who treats his small cadre of friends like dirt, and holds very dear the control he has over them during their weekly Dungeons and Dragons type of game. In fact, the game takes such a precedent in his life, that that is all he really spends him time concentrating on. Coming up with new challenges for his friends. He’s a miserable guy, who isn’t very happy with the state of his existence, and feels generally out of control. Well, except for the game, where he lords over the proceedings as the game master. During their play sessions, Scott feels whole, because he sets the rules, and has complete control of not only the world, but the path his friends have to travail; something he can’t do in actual life.
There is a lot of attention paid to Scott constantly trying to hold his friends back, and even getting upset when these arrested development, thirty something males, try to move on with their lives. Something like one of them trying to go out on a date sends Scott into a quiet, passive aggressive state of panic. He has a fear of abandonment, something that was developed from the “in and out” nature of his relationship with his free spirited mother, and when his friends want to actually have “lives” he doesn’t know how to deal with it. There’s a few examples of this dynamic played out in the film, and while they are indeed humorous, there is a very subtle undercurrent of sadness. What makes it even sadder is that Scott is completely aware of his inability to deal with these types of situations. So, he does all he can to maintain his “game master” position, even in real life.
These portions of the film represent, in my opinion, when the movie is at it’s best. There’s a sub plot involving his mother, and his living situation. While these scene are good, as they add context to why Scott is the way he is, I think there may be too much of a focus on it, and it distracts from some of the larger themes at play. Especially when the “fake nerd, Miles, comes into the picture. He’s basically what every “real nerd” would like to be. Smart, successful, in good shape, and so on and so forth. The thing about their dynamic basically boils down to the fact that they are extremely similar personality types. They both want to be the center of attention, they both want to be the smartest, and the coolest. Miles just comes off as a more affable person, but deep down, he’s kind of the same, and the story slowly plays out this fact, using it as a reveal.
Miles, is a “real nerd,” he just carries a different set of affectations, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t actually kind of cruel, in his own way. Scott takes his game very seriously. It’s a big part of his life, as it gives him a sense of purpose. Miles enters the situation in the form of a rude guest, basically. He comes in without really having respect for not only the game itself, but also the friendship dynamics of Scott and crew. That’s probably his most egregious offense, honestly. Because of his lack of awareness, empathy, and his need to be the center of attention, he ends up being a negative presence. It’s an interesting way of high lighting the dynamics I was talking about before. I’d go deeper, but the less you know the better.
Some people seem to think that the main character is unlikable, and his only saving grace is the performance given by, Sam Eidson. I understand why people feel that way. Scott is an insecure, man-child that likes to lord over his friends in sometimes psychologically demeaning ways, but I feel like the movie gives enough context for his disposition. I really felt like I knew Scott. I’ve met people like him in real life, and even saw some parts of myself in him, which was a little cringe inducing a few times, which is actually a strength of the flick. The people and their relationships feel real and recognizable. If you’ve ever had a group of “nerdy” friends, you’ll see them portrayed, in one way or another.
I really enjoyed Zero Charisma. It’s a refreshingly sincere comedy about a subject that hits close to home, but I don’t think the movies enjoyment is predicated on identifying with the characters. If anything, the movie reminds you that no matter where your interests lie, all people are kind of the same, in certain ways, and everybody wants the same types of things. Like, acceptance, and having a place in a community. It’s not the perfect movie, it has some pacing issues in the second act, but it’s pretty easy to forgive that. This is the directors first feature length film, so, cut them some slack, eh? It definitely will have me watching for their next film(s). You can check out Zero Charisma yourself on Amazon, Itunes, and various other VOD services. So, go help a small film out! I mean, you won’t feel better about yourself, or anything, but hey, it’s still a nice thing to do.