Dweeby doesn’t begin to describe the bulk of the protagonists in “Monster Camp,” Cullen Hoback’s documentary about those attracted to a live-action event for fantasy role-players in Washington state. Nonetheless, they prove winning — and their pastime peculiarly fascinating — in this fun nonfiction feature. Pic is a guaranteed fest crowd-pleaser that could potentially attract arthouse play in the hands of a distrib savvy enough to court interest among gamers as well as cinematic curiosity-seekers.
Nero is a game licensed to regional organizers who hold monthly gatherings of the costumed faithful, with weekend-long events a few times a year. Heading up the Seattle chapter is Shane, an affable fellow verging on burnout — everyone wants to play, but few volunteer to help with the behind-scenes work, making his lot increasingly burdensome. There’s also the worry that his retirement from the post might spell an end to Nero Seattle, if no one else is willing to step up.
Meanwhile, we meet a number of gamers, many of whom also obsessively play “World of Warcraft,” an online equivalent with some 8 million subscribers. These fantasy freaks are a diverse lot, but many do come across as needing to get out more often. There’s the jobless, uber-geeky guy in his fifth year of trying to graduate high school (a sixth is likely, since he admits to playing “Warcraft” 40 hours a week), and the middle-aged man whose daughter complains he pays more attention to his computer than to her.
One gamer named Fern stands out simply for the fact he’s had girlfriends (lots of them, in fact). “In-game sexual dynamics” are duly noted, with one current couple and two sniping exes both advising that fantasy characters can create problems, as well as sparks, for a real-world relationship. The Nero community also includes the ability to define a character’s gender/preference, as well as providing a respite for the disabled.
Nero and other games like it (both live and virtual) fulfill a need. They give adults “permission to pretend,” as one interviewee puts it, while another poignantly admits, “I need to be somebody else.”
Nero is also a (presumably) healthy outlet for aggression, as swordfights with soft but not entirely harmless foam “boffers” abound. Most everything in the wildly complicated Nero universe seems life-or-death, with assigned characters vulnerable to magic spells, monster attacks and other fatal perils. Fortunately, resurrection is a frequent option. Many elaborately costumed and painted participants are seen running around state park grounds during the two marathon Nero weekends director Cullen Hoback captures.
It is impossible to grasp even the basics of this elaborate game in a feature-length doc, but that inscrutability adds to the pic’s charm. Hoback (making a leap forward from the strained quirkiness of his 2006 fiction featurette “Freedom State”) captures the general absurdity and individual eccentricity without condescending to his subjects. Impact is as endearing as it is amusing.
Lively production package makes good use of new and preexisting music tracks.