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SXSW Review: ‘Zero Charisma’

Not since Trekkie fantasy “Free Enterprise” has a homespun geeksploitation comedy plunged so deep into the heart of nerd culture and lived to tell about it as “Zero Charisma,” which simultaneously skewers and celebrates Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop gaming through the eyes of a temperamental Game Master who desperately needs to grow up and move out of grandma’s house. Though executed broadly enough to delight more than just D&D enthusiasts, this SXSW audience award-winning satire will still have trouble courting mainstream attention, likely taking years after its more niche-targeted initial release to find a following.

Much of the pic’s appeal owes to star Sam Eidson, who looks like a cross between John Rhys-Davies and the Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons,” but isn’t known much beyond Austin, where he regularly plays indie roles that prize scruffiness. In Scott Weidemeyer, an overgrown misfit with a weird goatee and a wardrobe of black, mythical-creature T-shirts, it’s hard to imagine a part better suited to his unique look, possibly doing for his career what “The Foot Fist Way” did for Danny McBride a few years back.

After the humiliation of being caught pleasuring himself to Wonder Woman comics in high school, Scott now takes a different kind of satisfaction in bossing around his equally uncool pals in their weekly role-playing game. The in-jokey title suggests what’s wrong with Scott’s attitude: According to Wikipedia’s D&D entry, “Charisma is the measure of a character’s combined physical attractiveness, persuasiveness and personal magnetism,” which pretty much sums up the deficiencies in how Scott treats his friends.

When one of the players resigns just shy of a major turning point in the game Scott has been hosting for the past three years (“But we’re almost to the hall of the Goblin Queen!” he objects), he is forced to fill the vacant chair with a stranger. Rather that embracing the opportunity to raise the group’s “cool” quotient, Scott prefers to surround himself with losers, so he’s instantly threatened by the way hip new guy Miles (Garrett Graham) seems to have it all: a sexy g.f. (Katie Folger), a popular blog and an answer for the super-geek questions that have confounded Scott’s group for years, like which is faster, the Millennium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise.

At his first game night, Miles brings beer (Scott has a low tolerance for alcohol, a notion that should have paid off better in the climactic showdown) and presumes to bend Scott’s rigidly defined rules in order to make the game more fun for his peers. Watching his friends fawn over Miles, Scott is beside himself, though every time he loses his temper, lo-fi Lou Ferrigno-style, he simply winds up embarrassing himself.

And so a situation that seemed pretty rock-bottom to begin with — living with granny (Anne Gee Byrd), rejected by game publishers and working as a delivery boy — rapidly erodes to ever-more-pathetic depths. With a bigger budget, the pic might have concocted a real-world quest for Scott in order to redeem himself. As it is, the ending, while amusing, doesn’t quite resolve the pic’s various conflicts.

Still, the two co-helmers (Matthews also scripted) deliver a consistently entertaining, character-driven comedy set within a community rapidly losing out to online options (“World of Warcraft” is a sore point with the characters here). Embellished with tongue-in-cheek set furnishings and a mostly heavy-metal soundtrack, the pic affectionately captures the tail end of a culture in which specialized dice, character sheets and hand-painted figurines were the gateway to elaborate flights of imagination.

Zero Charisma

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 13, 2013. Running time: 88 MIN.

A Magic Stone Prods., Shark Films production. Produced by Thomas Fernandes, Ezra Venetos, Katie Graham, Andrew Matthews. Executive producers, Lindsay Stephenson, Michael Stephenson, Rod Olson.

Directed, edited by Katie Graham, Andrew Matthews. Screenplay, Matthews. Camera (color), Ellie Ann Fenton; music, Bobby Tahouri; music supervisor, Katie Graham; sound, Sean McCormick; re-recording mixer, Chris Keyland; visual effects, Joe Nicolosi; stunt coordinator, Toby Minor; assistant director, Thomas Fernandes; casting, Fernandes. 

With: Sam Eidson, Garrett Graham, Brock England, Anne Gee Byrd, Cyndi Williams, Katie Folger, John Gholson, Larry Jack Dotson, Dakin Matthews.

SXSW Review: 'Zero Charisma'

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