By now, the cuddly geek underdog has become such a ubiquitous staple of American movies that there’s almost no novelty left in seeing these lovable little guys—or in the case of something like Angus, beloved big guys—conquer the day. There is novelty, however, in a comedy that presents an outcast so unlikable, audiences may be tempted to side with the cool kid destroying his life. That’s one of the perverse pleasures of Zero Charisma, a barbed indie character study that seems perched, like Big Fan, between dark humor and probing psychodrama. The film’s adult anti-hero, played by Sam Eidson, is a hulking social misfit; he lives at home with his take-no-shit grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd), to whom he pays not a dime of rent, and devotes nearly every hour of every day to a Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG of his own design. Self-appointed, all-time game master, Eidson has spent years subjecting a fellowship of fellow gamers to his rules and whims; this “nerd herd,” as his grandmother calls them, accepts his bullying almost out of habit. For all his rhapsodic talk of the history of “communal storytelling,” Eidson’s interest in tabletop gaming is mainly an excuse to have a fiefdom. For a few hours a week, he’s the most powerful man in the room.
All that changes, however, when a charismatic new gamer (Garrett Graham) infiltrates the group, quickly succeeding in winning the affection of everyone but Eidson. (His first victory: proving, through inexorable logic, that the Millennium Falcon is faster than the Enterprise.) Graham runs a pop-culture website called Geekchic, which is a pretty apt description for the man himself. With his black-rimmed glasses and boho beard, he’s the fresh new face of nerd culture; he also has an easygoing jokester nonchalance that’s the polar opposite of his new rival’s desperate uptightness. Where the others fall quickly under his sway, Eidson sees an imposter—a tourist in their fringe world, trying desperately to be the “big fish in a small pond.” That suspicion isn’t dispelled by meeting Graham’s hipster girlfriend (Katie Folger), who flirts with Eidson (“Nerds are sexy”) only to later call him out for trying to cheat during the game. More than just a sad portrait of arrested male development, Zero Charisma is also, at heart, about the way culture vultures have steadily co-opted “dorky” activities, collapsing the walls separating the mainstream and the fringe.
In dragging their petty, control-freak protagonist through an epic life crisis—taking everything away from him, maybe even his home—directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews sometimes flirt with mean-spiritedness. Are they so different, in their unblinking gaze, than Graham and his scenester peers, who ridicule Eidson for his profound uncoolness? Maybe so, actually: Admirably resistant to picking sides, Zero Charisma recognizes its nemeses as different sides of the same coin, both obsessed with control over their little worlds. And in its merciless way, the film is much more interested in the psychology of actual outcasts—what makes them tick, why they love what they love—than a more generically pro-nerd property like The Big Bang Theory. That it never quite sinks into caricature is thanks to the imposing presence in the lead. Refusing to fish for sympathy, even as his character circles the drain, Eidson delivers a complex, bravely off-putting performance. There’s dignity, odd as it may seem, in his choice to approach a character without any in such an unsentimental way.