I’m obsessed with films about obsessive subcultures—so-called “geeksploitation” films. High Fidelity is a seminal work in the genre, and King of Kong is, I believe, unsurpassed in the documentary format. But where is the film devoted to the travails of a D&D dungeon master? Sam Lipsyte has shown what can be done with such a character in fiction, but the cinematic equivalent did not exist—until this week, when Zero Charisma debuted at South by Southwest.
Zero Charisma tells the story of a 30-something gamer named Scott (Sam Eidson), who lives with his grandmother in Austin. His bumper-sticker reads “Because I’m gamemaster, that’s why.” Much of Scott’s life is bleak. He’s nagged by his grandmother, yelled at by his boss, and he has no girlfriend. But Scott has a refuge. On Thursdays, his friends come over, and he rules supreme as the gamemaster of a multi-year gaming campaign to defeat the Goblin Queen of the Ungar Mountains. He also maintains an awesome collection of painted lead figurines. You might say, with Hegel in mind, that he is master within his domain, and slave everywhere else.
Things change when one player, Borges the Mighty, decides to quit the game to save his marriage. Scott finds a new player, a handsome young hipster named Miles (Garrett Graham), to join the gaming group (or “nerd herd,” as his grandmother puts it). Superficially, Miles has solid geek credentials. He draws comics, wears nerd glasses, and impresses the group on his first meeting by quickly calculating the speed of the Millennium Falcon. But deep down he is a member of a different tribe. It is clear he has never really suffered for his hobbies the way the others have. While Scott masturbates to anime, Miles has a beautiful blond girlfriend (Katie Folger) with an insatiable sexual appetite. For him, geekdom isn’t a refuge from the sufferings of life: It is merely an aesthetic.
Scott, to put things mildly, does not deal well with changes to his routine, and he cannot handle the arrival of Miles. The great injustice is that Miles, while he has never paid his dues, is actually a very talented gamer. He threatens everything Scott stands for, and indeed the very idea that you need suffer for art (or nerd cred), the idea that paying dues matters.
I asked filmmakers Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews what truly differentiates Mile the hipster geek from Scott the true nerd. “Scott is really part of an older tradition,” Matthews told me, “where you committed to something, and committed fully.” Miles, on the other hand “is just sampling. He tries gaming for a while, then maybe it’s something else. He’s from our age, where you don’t really need to commit to anything.”
Sam Eidson as Scott carries this hilarious film, particularly in his mighty tantrums at the injustices of the world, which have a Shakespearean quality. While Portlandia has done a skit about “the nerd council,” Zero Charisma is a superior, more in-depth take on the subject. And Dungeons & Dragons, which appears briefly in E.T., plays surprisingly well on screen. “Vroncar’s final blow crushes the troll’s skull,” Scott says to his players, near the beginning, “as he collapses into a bloody, smelly heap.”
A debate has raged online for a while about the meeting of coolness and nerdiness, with the “fake geek girl” meme and Portlandia’s “nerd council” sketch notable recent entries in that discussion. But Zero Charisma asks bigger questions than whether hipsters are ruining perfectly good subcultures with their version of poverty chic. Buried here among the saving throws is something deeper. Scott suffers for his obsession, while Miles takes the path of detached imitation. We want Scott to win, and for all his suffering to be worth something. But the slightly depressing insight in this film is that sometimes suffering doesn’t make you better. As co-director Andrew Matthews says, it’s about his “greatest fear … that someone else is doing exactly what you do, but is just better.”