I own a lot of toys. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense: I literally own a lot of action figures, playsets, things that can only be categorized as “toys.” I recently moved and had the horrific naked lunch moment of realizing that many of my boxed possessions were labeled “Toys” with “Fragile” scribbled sheepishly underneath. Beginning with Generation X, it’s become increasingly socially acceptable to not put away childish things, but instead adorn the edges of our lives with our childhood passions. Surrounded by my boxes of comics, toys, and evidence of arrested development, I worried &mdash would I recognize when the interests of my youth become my defense against growing up?
That is one of the many questions posed in the dark comedy Zero Charisma, directed by Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, about an obsessive Role Playing Game (RPG) game master who rules his escapist quests with an iron fist. Scott (Sam Eidson), a behemoth of a manchild in his late 20s, spends his days working as a delivery boy at Donut Taco Palace, living with his grandmother, and rocking out to heavy metal songs about sword ‘n’ sorcery. His nights are devoted to working on his miniatures and perfecting the ongoing RPG campaign he leads his friends through once a week for the past 3 years. When a player quits to work on his marriage, Scott finds a replacement in Miles (Garrett Graham), a hipster that runs a popular nerd website and has a natural ease that provides an anecdote for every situation. The charismatic Miles, whose ability to tell a joke contrasts with Scott’s desperate need for control, jeopardizes the game master’s rule over his fiefdom. Is this (imaginary) world big enough for both of them?
At first glance, it appears that Scott is just The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy with anger management issues as he yells at his meek, socially awkward cadre of nerds. But ultimately this is less of a Napoleon Dynamite freakshow — where the filmmakers delight in laughing at their characters — and more of a nuanced character study. There is nothing here to suggest that all nerds are fat jerks that live with their parents; it just so happens that Scott fits those categories. It is a fairly mundane dark comedy, filled with cringe-worthy scenes of Scott completely misreading social situations and attempting to outdo his suave rival with his pathetic boasts of getting totally ripped off by The Matrix. Yet the film lingers well past the last Therion song playing through the end credits because it’s less interested in schadenfreude than examining how we define ourselves.
Zero Charisma is a movie about authenticity and about the stories we tell ourselves to shore up that authenticity. Scott immerses himself in the world he has created, telling his epic story repeatedly as the lines blur between reality and his creation, miscasting himself as the heroic lead in a world set against him. His walls are littered with posters, comic books, and miniatures that push out the reality where his mother abandoned him and everyone looks at him with disdain and pity. He’s a constant ball of rage that is about to explode at inanimate objects around him, refusing to address the actual problem. When he punches a hole in the wall, he moves a poster to cover it up — only to reveal a previously punched hole. He demands control over something because he is not in charge of anything; and when he feels that command slipping, his impulse is to lash out because he can’t stand any more defeats (spoiler alert: he gets a lot more defeats).
But is Miles any different? He’s not a towering pile of sweaty rage, but he does reside within the walls of his own stories. He constantly humblebrags about his accomplishments while namedropping as often as possible. The world he’s built up isn’t Fantasy, but is a fantasy nonetheless where he’s the guy who likes all the right bands and knows all the right references as if they are catalogued in the dark recesses in a building in Williamsburg. The co-opting of ‘nerd culture’ where people ironically wear He-Man t-shirts or say “I’m such a nerd” for liking Star Wars is represented in Miles’s broad smile and perfect playlists. He’s slumming with the outcasts while remaining part of the “in” crowd.
Which is the better path for nerd-dom: Obsessive exclusion or hipster superficiality? They are both pretty terrible, although one tends to be much less lonely than the other. Do the people who make Top 10 Buzzfeed lists know the pain of being ostracized for caring too much about which costume was Wolverine’s best? (The brown one!) And can hardliners dial down their intensity long enough to forge relationships away from the twelve-sided die? This clash isn’t the true heart of Zero Charisma, it’s just the most entertaining, external layer. The film is more interested in examining if a person can truly put away childish things. Or will the ‘childish things’ always lurk inside of us, ready to lash out at a moment’s notice? Zero Charisma makes audiences cringe, but it’s dedicated to looking beyond the shiny surface, at the punched holes beneath the posters.