Review: Zero Charisma
What with hundreds of thousands of attendees to San Diego's Comic Con every year, the billions made by The Avengers, the hundreds of super-hot young women who dress as Slave Leia, and the ever-growing cultural and economic clout wielded by the video game industry, it may not have escaped your attention that pop culture interests once considered to be on the geek fringe are now, in the '10s, essentially all that popular culture is made of. With this rise of “geek chic” has come an odd social shift. People who have never been persecuted for being uncool or for having uncool interests are now claiming “geek credibility.” There is a sizable segment of America's twentysomething population that hinges their own social power with how much geek information they can absorb and retort. “Geek” now essentially overlaps heavily with “hipster.” What, for instance, is the “cool/geek” status of learning to play the ukulele? Or taking up burlesque as a hobby? Is D&D cooler if you drink classy expensive beers while doing it?
And what of the classical nerd stereotype? The lumbering, socially awkward, bad facial hair-sporting metalhead dimwit who takes all the fun out of D&D by taking the game way too seriously? Scott (Sam Eidson), the lead character of Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews' Zero Charisma, is one such classical nerd. Rounding 30, Scott lives with his grandmother, can barely hold down a string of crappy retail jobs, has alienated many of his old bosses and D&D buddies, and whose room hasn't altered too much since he was about 15. His only escape is a years-long RPG campaign that he has been slowly authoring for the last three years, and whose players have become somewhat disillusioned about.
Into Scott's shaky milieu comes Miles (Garrett Graham), a modern-day geek who has a hot girlfriend, his own posh apartment, several jobs writing for high-profile geek websites, and a potential publication of his very own comic book. Miles is a geek with agency who has used the world's geek-friendly environment to feed his creative spirit and become more erudite, while still indulging in his childhood interests. Of course, everyone prefers Miles' laidback and pragmatic coolness over Scott's blustering, angry, caustic nerd browbeating.
For a long time, it looks like Zero Charisma is going to be a tut-tut lecture to nerds about learning to grow up and put away childish things, but I think it may be more complex than that. Scott is a nerd to his core, and I'm not just talking about his interests. He is angry, awkward, and often mean. Sam Eidson certainly lives the part: he is a large overweight man who towers over his friends, seemingly clumsy and far too aggressive. Zero Charisma is not just a lesson to a man who needs to grow up. This is about a man who seems incapable of growing into even what geek culture would have him become. He needs more than what a geek-accepting culture can provide. He needs a niche that most people would not want him to have.
Zero Charisma is about nerds, but it's more about a great schism in nerd culture. There are cool geeks in the world, but we need to remind ourselves of the true-blue nerds who have always carried the torch. The abrasive true-believer DM assholes who, despite however geek-friendly the world may be, are still shunned for their passions. Nerds still exist, and they are still socially awkward weirdos. Scott is a pitiable character, but is meant to elicit sympathy. While Miles is certainly cool and sexy, he is ultimately not going to be a practical role-model for Scott.
Zero Charisma is the first film to be presented by Nerdist Industries, the enormous online community revolving around the studio's founder, interviewer and would-be comedian Chris Hardwick. Hardwick has always been a nerd sympathizer (hence the name “Nerdist”), and is of just the right age to have experienced the '00s geek boom. He perhaps knew, or knows, people like Scott, as well as people like Miles. Hardwick's message with distributing this movie is not just to celebrate those long evenings of drinking diet root beer and playing D&D with friends back in high school, but to remind modern hipsters of their nerd roots. Those sweaty awkward guys buying back issues of “Conan” and continuing to paint their own pewter figurines? They are your forefathers. Social martyrs to the cause. Respect them. They've been through a lot.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.