Our current popular culture romanticizes nerdiness in a way that would have seemed unheard of just 10 years ago. Shows about zombies and dragons and fairy tales are among the most popular shows on TV. Every blockbuster released is about comic book super heroes or space battles. The most popular books of the last decade are about vampires and boy wizards. The nerds have won. Hell, Chris Hardwick -- who Devin Faraci once aptly described as the "Ryan Seacrest of geekdom" -- has build an entire career out of being a nerd, hosting every third show on TV and branding his own Nerdist Industries.
Which brings me to Zero Charisma, the debut feature from directors Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham (from a screenplay by Matthews). It's also the first movie to be distributed by Hardwick's Nerdist Industries. There's an irony there, because while Nerdist can be guilty of romanticizing geekdom (even if they do come by it honestly), Zero Charisma plays like the bitter antidote. Those who think it's cool or fun to be a nerd may not be prepared for how dark and difficult Zero Charisma suggests that lifestyle can be to those who really live it.
Zero Charisma follows Scott Weidemeyer (Sam Eidson), a twenty-something obsessed with his role as the Game Master of a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game. He lives with his grandmother, he works at a sandwich shop, he gets into arguments on a daily basis with those who don't see the world the way he does or, even worse, who don't know as much as him (which is everyone). The only part of his life he seems to enjoy is when he's gaming with his small group of friends, who either like him or tolerate him because the game is just as important to them. When the group loses a member and is replaced by Miles (Garrett Graham), a hipster blogger whom Scott quickly identifies as a "tourist" in his world, things quickly start to go south. The group likes Miles better. He's cool, and his presence begins to usurp Scott's authority. At the same time, Scott's estranged mother has reentered his life and is threatening to disrupt the plans he has with his grandmother.
The decision to focus almost entirely on Scott is a good one, too, as the movie could very easily have turned into a nerd vs. hipster "contest" movie with too obvious a villain -- there is a quick party montage that's one of the best and most succinct takedowns of hipsterism I have ever seen. Miles is a good character and Graham (who is channeling James Franco, intentionally or otherwise) plays him well, even if the direction he eventually takes makes it pretty clear what side the filmmakers are on. Not all of the hipsters are monsters; Miles' girlfriend (played by Katie Folger of Grow Up, Tony Phillips, a lovely actress who needs to be in every movie) is sweet and patient without being a complete pushover. Even Miles doesn't initially start playing the game ironically or to mock it, even if a big part of his reasoning is because he's impressed with himself for doing so. We live in the age of everyone being impressed with themselves for everything they do, and it's nice to see a movie that gets that without being too heavy-handed about the observation.
Zero Charisma is a terrific character study -- the kind of small movie worth seeking out on VOD (it's available now). It may not be one of my favorite movies of the year (not every movie can be), but it's one of the first movies I've ever seen that really nails a specific kind of person. Sometimes, that's all we can ask a movie to do -- to find a slice of underrepresented humanity and reflect it back to us accurately. Here's a movie that does that. We don't have to like Sam Eidson, but at least we can try and understand him.
Zero Charisma is currently playing in limited release and is available on VOD and iTunes.