Review: 'Zero Charisma'

"Zero Charisma" premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Conference. It is still awaiting distribution.

Were I a Mexican beauty contestant caught up in the bloody world of narcotrafficking, you might expect me to have a strong opinion of the movie “Miss Bala.” To that end, “Zero Charisma,” a film about a repulsive tabletop gaming enthusiast facing down his nemesis in the form of a seductively cool “nerd tourist” is something that speaks to a conflict deep within me.

Despite ample circumstantial evidence to the contrary, it is not hip to be square. Well, at least not always fun. As Seymour puts it in “Ghost World,” “I hate my interests!” You see, the distinction between a true and fake nerd – and yes this argument is a tad stale but luckily this movie ought to nail it shut – is that a real nerd isn't doing it by choice.

No one wants to waste time and money forever perusing a lost variant of a Green Lantern comic book. No one wants to argue over the correct algebraic notation of Tri-D chess. No one wants to rationalize canon-friendly reasons for why TOS Klingons have smooth foreheads or why Luke and Leia kissed. Or, I should say, no one wants that to be the only thing that matters to them. But some people, perhaps because they are socially awkward, disfigured, obese or emotionally crippled from a horrendous childhood, recognize/allow this to hold them back from what they really want, a mature and meaningful relationship.

Meet, if you can stomach him, Scott. Packed into dragon T-shirts and dodging the ketchup that squirts out the sides of his fast food, Sam Eidson presents an anti-hero for the ages. He wears the marks of indignity on his unshaven face, his sunken eyes suffering as the rest of the world goes out of its way to give him a hard time. His grandmother is a pest, his boss is a nag and the only bright spot in his life, his weekly Dungeons and Dragons(-esque) game is often undercut by fellow players who don't, he feels, take it seriously.

It's about to get a whole lot worse when an open seat at the campaign brings Miles (Garrett Graham.) Handsome and drinking microbrews (not neon-colored soda,) Miles is funny, charming and knowledgable about pop culture in a flashy way. He woos the group in under a minute with a clever explanation proving how the Millennium Falcon is faster than the Enterprise. He then goes in for the kill revealing himself as a founding editor of, the very same outlet that recently published the top 100 comic book villains.

Scott and Miles quickly lock horns but the movie goes out of its way to not be too clear what side it is on. Here's the thing: Scott is disgusting and childish, but he's also really smart. Plus we'll soon learn that he was basically abandoned by his mother, who remains a horrible person. He's the finest cinematic representation of John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly, the type to browbeat dullards, fundamentally gross, but also a little bit right.

Miles, on the other hand, is a difficult kind of evil. He's taking advantage of Scott's players, using them for fodder, but he's also genuinely fun to be around. His trendy-kitsch home furnishings are gorgeous, as are his original comic book designs. He's plundering the hard work put in by others, but he is talented. He's J.J. Abrams, right down to the designer glasses.

Rare is the film where you both care for and despise both the hero and villain. It is this dynamic, in addition to the truly painful family revelations, that elevate “Zero Charisma” from being just another jab at nerd culture. You root for Scott, but you also know Miles is right. You hate Miles but you also don't want Scott to unmask him. As someone for whom geek obsessions have been both a blessing and a curse, it's as if two halves of my psyche were arguing right in front of me on the big screen.

Directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews create a great framework for the epic nemesis battle, but also know when to pull back to keep the movie grounded in reality. No one in this film is a caricature. Furthermore, “Zero Charisma” knows the gag of making dork references for the sake of blowing fanboy minds has been done to death. (And, frequently, done horribly.) Other than the posters in Scott's room, the picture decides to dump all the deep-cut chatter into one contained scene. It is part of the aforementioned Millennium Falcon moment, wherein a character lets rip an obscure, hardcore nerd reference that only the 1% will get. For the mainstream, it'll blow right by. But for the people out there who truly tussle with the film's core conflict, it is confirmation that this film comes from a place that is, perhaps to the creators' consternation, legit.

SCORE: 9.0 / 10