A recent trend in filmmaking and television is attempting to capture the essence of nerd culture by telling stories of role-playing. It can be either pen-and-paper or live action. Community did it, as did Supernatural, Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott starred in Hollywood’s Role Models, and a slew of independent films like Knights of Badassdom, Gamerz, and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising have come around in the last decade to finally bring the nerdiest of nerdy activities out of the darkness of parents’ basements and into the light.
The best of these that I’ve seen is Zero Charisma. Out of all of the RPG portrayals, I think this one really cuts to the heart of geek culture by contrasting the classic neckbeard stereotype and inaccessible passion that fuels our love of the fantastic with modern sensibilities and social acceptance. It also has a wickedly clever title.
How does somebody who has been shunned their entire life deal with the modern concept of a cool nerd? The word “geek” originates from carnival sideshows where a performer would do things like biting the heads off of live chickens. This implies that the very act of being a geek should be revolting and bizarre to normal people, and for most of my life it was so. There were no Felicia Days, Peter Dinklages, or Summer Glaus for us back in the day; just asthma, endless allegations regarding our sexual preferences, and unhealthy fixations on Slave Leah.
In the 80’s when I was growing up we had a little thing known as the Satanic Panic, where things like role playing games and heavy metal music were deemed part of a massive baby-sacrificing conspiracy threatening the very fabric of ‘Murica and banned by parents like mine. Not joking. There was a time when being a RPG nerd was literally equated with worshipping Satan. Apparently, this is what they were picturing:
In Zero Charisma, a dungeon master who takes his game a little too seriously has his group invaded by a new player, Miles, who bears a (likely non-accidental) resemblance to Seth Green. He’s the guy who settles the Enterprise vs. Millennium Falcon argument, he’s got a sexy and charming girlfriend who probably cosplays, he’s witty, he contributes articles to geek-based pop culture websites (those people are the WORST), and he drinks beer. When did this become a thing?
There’s a scene where our thoroughly unlikable dungeon master protagonist, Scott, presents his latest perfectly-crafted quest in his group’s ongoing three year campaign, in which his own NPC offers them the stones of power they require if they will but brave the dangers….. and Miles suggests they just kill the quest-giver and take the stones. Everybody laughs as Miles declares the character a dick and throws his sword at his head. Scott has no choice but to allow it, insisting he must roll a 20. Naturally, Miles succeeds in derailing the entire session, leading to a DM rage quit.
This scene is particularly awesome because I’m sure anyone who has played a tabletop RPG has seen the equivalent of this exact situation. The first time I made a go at creating my own quest, I thought it would be cool if the party were stranded in an oceanside cavern surrounded by pools of water filled with sharks. The sharks were there to give the players a reason to avoid the pools and funnel them where I wanted them to go and for an atmosphere of danger (I was like 14 tops, give me a break), but I hadn’t anticipated that the players’ were insane experience whores who wanted to dive into the pools and fight the sharks.
Are you shitting me right now?
So my quest was ruined because now instead of looking for a way out, I spent the whole session being a passive aggressive jerk because my grand adventure was now ridiculous and the mental visual of warriors diving into water to fight sharks with goddamn swords and shields and shit broke my precious immersion. But hey, the rules are the rules. At the end of the day, the DM’s job is to let the players do what they want and improvise as necessary.
Zero Charisma reeks of personal experience. While other entries into this film subgenre have managed to capture the fun of the scene, this is one that really focuses on the struggle of people who have nothing else in their lives but geek culture who are having to deal with the fact that the stuff they like that made them different is now becoming popular. The thing that set them apart and made them feel special is now everyone else’s too and they are just left with poor personal hygiene and unsociable personalities while the popular kids take over their domain.
Forever alone, I’m sure.
Later in the film, Scott takes it upon himself to crash a party at Miles’ house, essentially returning the favor. Miles invaded his nerd world with his coolness so Scott invades his right back by bringing his brand of antisocialism to Miles’ hipster party. At the end of the film, it’s left to the viewer to decide how they feel about all this.
I mean, Miles doesn’t really do anything particularly bad so there’s no reason to hate him. Scott is kind of a total bastard, but his bad attitude comes from a place of passion for the things he loves and frustration for his social deficiencies. They are just two very different people from different worlds who share a love for the same things and express that love differently.
Zero Charisma maybe leans a little towards Scott’s side since he’s the protagonist and all, but it avoids making his nemesis a bad person, which it could have easily done. It’s too rare a film that shows enough maturity to let the audience decide who is right or wrong rather than cartoonishly ramming one perspective or another down the audience’s throats. This is one of those comedies that feels all too real at times. If you are looking for a geeky film that really captures the loser experience, this may be your stop. Give it a shot.
I wish there was a “no Anthrax posters were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer in the credits, but there isn’t. Bastards.