Nerd Puzzles, by Aaron Pinkston
Though nerd culture has come closer and closer to the mainstream, there is still certainly a division between the Hollywood version of the nerd and the true blue nerds out there. The specific type of nerd portrayed in Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews’ Zero Charisma, those partial to tabletop role playing games (think: Dungeons and Dragons), are even farther away from realistic representation in Hollywood. Whenever a character in a film is identified as being from this nerd culture subset, their presence is typically only used as an insult or to be the butt of stereotypical jokes. I don’t consider myself as part of this particular subset, but I know many people who are and I consider them pretty cool. They are smart, creative, funny people and Zero Charisma gets this, without overselling it.
When a spot opens up in Grand Master Scott’s home game, new recruit Miles threatens the fabric of this fantasy society. Scott is both the best and the worst of his character type — Zero Charisma doesn’t go out of its way to make him just a folk hero or just a mega-nerd, making Scott a whole character rarely ever seen for the type. He’s a touch anti-social, overly defensive of his lifestyle and unable to compromise. He’s also very passionate and ambitious — he knows what he likes and why he likes it. Unlike the title would suggest, Scott isn’t wholly uncharismatic, especially when he is in his element, leading missions of elves, dwarves and fairies. Despite his shortcomings, the film never judges him for the wrong reasons. It doesn’t point him out as a loser because he lives at home or can’t hold a good job, but it doesn’t let him off the hook when he violates one of the film’s major themes, when he treats his friends poorly.
Zero Charisma can poke fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of table-top game culture, but it absolutely understands the people who play. I imagine that ardent gamers will very much respect the film’s presentation of the game. Andrew Matthews’ script is sharp and full of references without being flatly referential — fantasy/sci-fi fans are bound to love conversations in the film like when the characters argue which is faster: the Millennium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise. Those who are uninitiated won’t have any problems, though, as the film makes this world very safe and inclusive without compromising its essence. It’s also a fully realized film with a dramatic center to which anyone can relate. There are real emotional stakes at the heart, dealing with issues of getting by in a dysfunctional family and being liked by your peer group. Zero Charisma also dodges the predictable routes we normally see in nerd-centric films. The end goal isn’t talking to or dating the attractive girl who never notices you — Angus is a great movie, but we’ve seen a lot of representations like that.
Couched in with the world of gaming is a story about Scott and his strange family. Scott lives with his emotionally distant grandma who raised him after his mother allegedly ran off to grow marijuana in Mexico. When his grandma has a stroke, his mother and her fiance show up from who knows where to invade Scott’s world. Scott’s mother Barbara (played by Independent Spirit nominated actress Cyndi Williams) is on the line of being an over-the-top villain, never being present but trying to impart wisdom and criticize her son’s personal choices. In this family, it is easy to see that Scott isn’t angry and sulky and uncompromising because he is a nerd, but because of the baggage around him.
The film’s major conflict comes with the introduction of Miles, the new player in Scott’s home game. Miles is everything that Scott is not, at least on the surface. He’s hip, attractive, and has a cute girlfriend and lots of friends. Scott has a blog read by 14 people while Miles runs a Nerdist-like empire. Miles comes into the game and instantly seduces Scott’s friends, proves his nerd worth and wows them with his accomplishments. Most important to the story, though, is that Miles doesn’t judge Scott (at least initially) but the other way around. Miles gives him every chance, but Scott constantly tries to build himself up by putting him down — an act that often backfires in increasingly cringe-worthy ways. By the end of the film, through his encounters with Miles, Scott begins to understand that if he doesn’t treat the people around him with respect he will certainly lose them.
Zero Charisma gets all the big things right. It portrays a specific culture with respect but without taking itself too seriously. Its characters are relatable within acceptable stereotypes, but the film does the work to make us understand them as fully realized people. More importantly, it’s really funny. Whether or not you consider yourself a nerd (or whether society considers you a nerd), Zero Charisma will work.