SXSW FILM 2013
By Linc Leifeste | March 19, 2013
Directors: Katie Graham, Andrew Matthews
Writer: Andrew Matthews
Starring: Sam Eidson, Anne Gee Byrd, Brock England, Garrett Graham, Cyndi Williams, Vincent James Prendergast, Katie Folger, Larry Jack Dotson, Dakin Matthews
Zero Charisma presents the story of Scott (Sam Eidson), a role-playing gamer (“gamemaster,” to give credit where credit is due) in his 30’s whose life, by most standards, is a complete failure. He’s homely, overweight, lives with his crusty grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd) (his mother abandoned him when he was eight) in her cluttered run down house, is employed as a donut delivery guy (and has shouting matches with his boss who clearly has no respect for him) and, if it’s not already obvious, is very single. And there’s no reason to believe that things will change for the better anytime soon. But there is one bright beacon of light in Scott’s life, which in typical American fashion is expressed through a bumper sticker on his car: “Because I’m gamemaster, that’s why.” One night a week, a small band of nerdy “friends” gather around the dining room table at Scott’s grandmother’s house to participate in an ongoing gaming adventure (three years and running) thought up and run by Scott himself. This is his element and the place where he is comfortably in complete control of, if not a bit tyrannical with, his small band of loyal gamers. Until things start to unravel, that is.
On paper, this is not a film that would capture my interest. Not to say that I don’t have any experience with fantasy gaming, I did play Dungeons & Dragons for a while as a kid (Scott would not take kindly to my comparing my D&D experience with his own gaming, by the way), but I was never as deeply invested as Scott nor did my interest carry over into adulthood. I walked into the screening not knowing much about the film and with low expectations. As is the case with the best of previously unknown festival films, was I ever pleasantly surprised.
Scott’s life begins to take a turn for the worse when one of his gamers drops out in order to try to save his marriage. For Scott, who sees the game as the only priority in life, it’s a shocking turn of events. And so he begins the hunt for a replacement, having no luck at first; as the film makes clear, even in the lowly world of fantasy gaming, Scott’s not a popular man. But suddenly, much to his and everyone else’s surprise, Scott lands charismatic young hipster, Miles (Garrett Graham), as a replacement. But it soon becomes apparent that Miles is smarter, more creative, more successful and not invested in the game and therefore not willing to subserviently follow Scott’s game plan. Soon Scott feels threatened, and rightfully so, and doesn’t respond well to Miles’ challenges, leading to the complete loss of his life’s only saving grace.
The conflict between Scott and Miles lies at the heart of the film and is intensely captivating to watch. While they have a few superficial things in common (a love of comics and sci-fi), Miles is everything Scott isn’t: slender, attractive, popular, successful creatively and financially. To put it in perspective, Scott’s former comic book store coworkers have video footage of him masturbating to anime in the bathroom while Miles has a gorgeous girlfriend (Katie Folger). Miles doesn’t belong in Scott’s world. It’s just a place he’s dropping in to experience for a little while, a side excursion for a little fun, and he really could care less about the ramifications of his actions.
Around the same time, Scott’s mother Barbara (Cyndi Williams) shows up with her new fiance Bob (Larry Jack Dotson) in tow, trying to worm her way back into her mom’s life for selfish reasons, and this puts Scott’s long-term financial hopes in danger. The dialogue and actors perfectly combine to paint a believable and painfully humorous (you’ll laugh repeatedly but you’ll feel guilty every time) portrait of a mom whose perpetually selfish behavior has made Scott the damaged man he is.
I can’t give Zero Charisma star Sam Eidson, whose realistic portrayal is spot-on brilliant, or directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews enough credit for the job they do in so fully humanizing such a pathetic character. While Scott’s a hard person to like and I’d probably find it nearly impossible to spend time with him, he never feels less than genuine and real and I found myself rooting for him in his battles with his mother, with his former comic book store co-workers and with his arch-enemy Miles. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a person who, due to circumstances beyond his control, never really had a chance to succeed in life. He’s just trying to get by the best he can, and in the process has managed to find what a lot of people would be happy to have, a little niche in which to thrive. Watching him lose that, even if “that” is something that most people consider pathetic, is an incredibly moving experience.