The nerds may have inherited the Earth, but they remain shockingly poorly represented in media. TV and movie nerds rarely feel like the real thing; there’s always a shuck and jive quality to media portrayals of nerds. I mean, it’s insensitive to compare the characters on The Big Bang Theory to Stepin Fetchit, but if the shuffling shoe fits...
Only Freaks and Geeks has ever truly captured the dichotomy at the heart of being a nerd - the pride and the shame, the fun and the sadness, the camaraderie and the loneliness. There’s a beauty and a tragedy to being a nerd, and Paul Feig fully understood it. And maybe that honesty is part of what kept the show from being a success when it was on the air - unlike the antics of the Bazinga boys, Freaks and Geeks presented a nuanced human and rounded version of social unfortunates.
Zero Charisma is nothing like Freaks and Geeks except for the way it completely and totally ‘gets’ being a nerd; it is, almost certainly, the best film ever made about nerds (as we understand them today). It’s hilarious, it’s sweet, and in the end it’s just a little bit heartbreaking.
Scott (Sam Eidson) is big burly geek who lives with his grandmother and who loves heavy metal and tabletop RPGs. He’s the game master in a long-running weekly session, and he takes the whole thing very, very seriously. Scott’s quick to childish bursts of anger, and he’s managed to alienate most of the people he knows. His world, probably already very small, is reduced to his grandmother’s kitchen and his small group of players.
That world gets disrupted when a new player joins the group. Miles is a hipster nerd who played D&D back in school and thinks it would be fun to get back into it. He lives with his pretty girlfriend and runs a popular pop-culture blog that sends him to set visits and hooks him up with famous people. He knows his Star Trek and Star Wars, but he’s good looking and listens to cool new bands and drinks beer. The players fall in love with Miles, and Scott’s jealous rage grows out of control.
Miles is a consummate fake geek - a tourist. But that doesn’t make Scott any sort of a hero; he’s a self-centered, delusional asshole who is always cutting people down and throwing little tantrums. These two represent very different sides of being a nerd: for Miles it’s a lifestyle, while for Scott it’s an affliction.
Scott’s an incredible character; as written by co-director Andrew Matthews he’s about as unlikable as possible, but Eidson brings a startling humanity to him. Eidson is brimming with charisma, and his comic delivery is impeccable. Another actor may have made Scott unbearable, but Eidson’s so good you find yourself siding with this asshole against your own better judgment.
Matthews and co-director Katie Graham financed the movie through Kickstarter, and while Zero Charisma is low budget it doesn’t look cheap. What's more, they understand that a good script is the cheapest yet best piece of production value, and Zero Charisma’s script creates a compelling character sketch of Scott that’s then loaded with jokes. This isn’t a silly or absurdist movie, and all of the jokes are rooted in highly identifiable aspects of the nerd experience. There are big parts of the movie that made me cringe, elements of myself that I saw reflected in the characters, especially Scott.
That’s the other thing Zero Charisma has that doesn’t cost much: honesty. The film pulls no punches, and you shouldn’t walk in expecting traditional happy endings. It’s like Freaks and Geeks again - sometimes things don’t get better. That’s not to say that Zero Charisma has a bummer of an ending, but this isn’t the kind of movie where Scott gets the girl. Matthews and Graham have made a movie that is very funny, very open-hearted but also very, very truthful.
I have to admit that Zero Charisma is almost supernaturally aimed at me. This is a movie that spoke to me on such a primal level that it felt like the first time you learned there were other weirdos, outcasts and nerds in the world. It’s that feeling of knowing someone else shares your thoughts and interests. Zero Charisma is the nerd movie I’ve been hoping to see for years.