This review was originally published on March 19, 2013…
My biggest surprise of SXSW 2013 came in the form of a micro-budget film about a game master for a role-playing game (RPG) shot right under my nose in Austin. Typically when an Austin film does not even register on my radar, I assume that it is not worth knowing about. Okay, wait, allow me to clarify that last remark before you assume that I am some sort of a pretentious prick. What I mean is that word travels really fast when someone is shooting something worthwhile in Austin.
Having heard nothing about Zero Charisma prior to the announcement that it would premiere at SXSW 2013, I was totally taken aback by that news. I knew nothing about the directors of Zero Charisma, Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, except that they both worked on Best Worst Movie (2009) and The American Scream (2012). I recognized Sam Eidson, the lead actor of Zero Charisma, from a short film titled Billy’s Birthday (2009) and his small supporting roles in The Man from Orlando (2012) and Pictures of Superheroes (2012); otherwise I knew nothing about any of the major players in Zero Charisma. I thought I knew a lot of people in the Austin filmmaking community, but after perusing the credits of Zero Charisma, I realized that there were a lot more people out there.
I ventured into the SXSW screening of Zero Charisma with no expectations, and I exited the screening with everlasting impressions. First of all, the production quality is astounding. This film looks like a million bucks — and I mean that quite literally, Zero Charisma looks like it was shot for at least a million dollars. I don’t know anything about cinematographer Ellie Ann Fenton, but she deserves to shoot a lot more feature films.
Secondly, for a dramatic comedy about gaming geeks and hipster geeks, Matthews’ script is incredibly nuanced and mature. This is a script that could have easily been riddled with stereotypes and caricatures, but Matthews opts to develop very authentic, well-rounded human beings. On one level, everyone is likeable, but they each have their own flaws as well. Eidson’s lead performance as Scott is a high wire act that balances emotional depth and comedy. For whatever reason, I didn’t expect Eidson to possess this much dramatic range. Sure, he may not fit the mold for a Hollywood leading man, but he certainly has the acting chops to warrant having top billing on theatrical marquees.
Scott (Eidson) is a game master for a RPG of his own creation, a position that he takes quite seriously. Despite being in his thirties, Scott still lives at home with his grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd). His bedroom looks like a teenager’s, saturated with posters and action figures that signify his geekdom. In the eyes of society, Scott is a total slacker and still has a lot of maturing left to do. He is not like the new breed of hipster geeks who are just as obsessive about geekdom as Scott but also hold down successful careers and are…well…cool.
While searching for a new player to join his RPG, Scott meets Miles (Garrett Graham), one of those aforementioned hipster geeks. Scott reluctantly allows Miles to join the game but quickly grows jealous of Miles’ wealth of knowledge and aggravated with his not-so-serious approach to playing the game. First and foremost, Miles’ utter disrespect for the position of the game master really upsets Scott.
Zero Charisma handles Scott and Miles with much more respect and finesse than one would expect from this kind of story; then again, this isn’t the kind of story we expect it to be. Whereas Hollywood would feel the need to establish an obvious good guy and bad guy, Zero Charisma offers two shades of gray. Scott and Miles are selfish and manipulative people who do very despicable things; but, oddly enough, they are both fairly endearing as well. This blurring of allegiances creates a certain level of complexity that we don’t typically find in comedies; then again, this isn’t a typical comedy.
There are no simple messages in Zero Charisma. Obviously Scott has some maturing to do, but it is equally important for him to maintain his creativity and self-expression. The key for Scott to evolve into a better person is for him to learn how to balance the responsibilities of real life with the elaborate fictions of his fantasy world. It also probably wouldn’t hurt if Scott could learn how to play better with others, since that is exactly what RPGs are all about, playing with others.
As much as it pains me to make this comparison, with the right marketing and distribution strategy Zero Charisma could easily become the next Napoleon Dynamite — meaning a low-budget indie film with unknown actors that has just enough quirk and charm to be endearing and digestible to mainstream audiences. This is an all-around well-made film that is impossible not to fall in love with, even if you don’t recognize any of the names involved with the production.