The film Zero Charisma explores the necessity of hardship in being a nerd

There’s a silly rule I came up with a long time ago that I used to sling around like a mantra: “You can’t call yourself a nerd until you have been called one by someone else in a derogatory manner.”

I’m cognizant of the fact that it’s utter nonsense, because something as important and personal as how you identity yourself as a person should be dictated by you alone and not dependent on the validation of others; but I still found it hard to let go of that belief because there is empowerment in the act of taking a put-down and turning it into its own proud community. So to hear someone adopt the nerd moniker casually will always sting a bit, and especially hard to reconcile with the belief that it’s fundamentally wrong to try and limit new audiences for things that you love. At comic conventions, you can often see this divide between those who consider it a wonderful refuge that’s the highlight of their year and those who are there slumming it.

The indie comedy Zero Charisma, which premiered at SXSW earlier this year and opens today in select theaters, seeks to address this discrepancy. Scott (Sam Eidson) is a much darker and more honest portrayal of a nerd than we’re accustomed to seeing on screen. It is primarily a comedy, but its convincing character work puts it on that line between satire and psychoanalysis.

The mainstreaming of nerd culture has led to nerds/geeks/dorks as viable archetypes to put in every ensemble cast these days, to inject a little geek chic. Most of them, however, have been sandpapered to smoothness so their nerdiness go down more easily for general audiences. They become adorable faces to put in front of nerd talking points, rather than the outcasts that nerds so often are. See: Chuck, The Big Bang Theory, Adam Scott in Parks and Rec, or Adam Brody in The OC. Even Community‘s Abed, whose characterization gets so many of the obsessive impulses right, is still the version of a nerd who is lovable and socially confident. Very rarely do we see nerd characters vulnerable, dejected, and pushed aside as a direct result of their nerdiness, in the way Freaks and Geeks did it so heartbreakingly well.

In contrast, Zero Charisma‘s Scott is a bitter pill. He’s overweight, unattractive, selfish, ungrateful, and the few friends willing to indulge him, he bullies into submission so he gets his way and wins all arguments. He acts like a controlling Dungeon Master to everyone he meets, both in and out of the game. But it’s also heavily implied that this attitude is an irreversible defense mechanism he’s developed because of his upbringing and the way he’s probably been treated all his life for being a fantasy-obsessed, role-playing, trenchcoat-wearing metalhead.

“You just like hanging out with losers so you can be the coolest guy in the room,” he accuses Miles (Garrett Graham), who joins Scott’s gaming circle and immediately wins his friends over with the charisma that Scott so sorely lacks. Whether or not he’s right about Miles, Scott is ignorant of the fact that that’s exactly what he’s been doing. The film very perceptively deals with that impulse where even among those who resign themselves to be losers, no one wants to actually be the loser of the bunch.

Scott’s identity crisis at heart that the film captures so potently is something more universally understandable, which makes him an interesting protagonist despite his repellent behavior. What do you do when you’ve built your entire self-esteem around one thing and rationalized all of your shortcomings as the inevitable side effect of your passion, only to be confronted with proof that other people can excel at the same passion without your flaws?

Miles is the now all-too-common new breed who straddles the line between nerd and hipster, who partakes in all the joys of consuming nerdy interests, without suffering any of the social stigma that we’ve been told over and over in life and in pop culture is part of being a nerd. He makes a living blogging about it, he has trendy friends who don’t shun him for it, and he lives with a gorgeous woman who finds nerdiness a turn-on. The immediate rivalry between him and Scott is a litmus test for the film’s audience as to what kind of nerd you find to be the more “acceptable” one, and your choice is probably greatly influenced by your own experience.

Scott’s resentment of Miles—and I believe this is a resentment that the filmmakers intend for the nerds in the audience to share—stems from the fact that Miles has not paid his dues, so to speak. As a handsome, funny, popular, and sexually active guy, Miles’ nerdy interests are just an aspect of him that he can turn into an asset, rather than a source of ridicule and rejection that Scott and his friends suffered all their lives. Scott devotes a lot of passion and energy into tabletop gaming because he has nothing else going for him; Miles does it because he thinks it looks fun.

Scott vs Miles

Ultimately, though, directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews do make it perfectly clear whose side they’re on, with a third act revelation usually reserved for the hackiest romantic comedies. It allows them to stay true to Scott’s conviction of being who he is and avoid turning his journey into an unrealistically transformative one, but it is perhaps the single biggest misstep in an otherwise deftly handled portrait of the subculture’s divide.

For many people who will see the film, wherever they may stand socially, they are likely to finish the movie with the impression that Miles is but a tourist, who cares more about his social reputation than his hobbies. This actually distracts from what is the most important question the film’s premise poses, one that is extremely relevant today: is the lack of social grace a necessary trait for nerd culture? Had the film not given the audience an easy out on who between the two to root for, this is the area where the votes would be split.

It was a hard process of reconciliation for me while watching the film, because as much as I prefer to say that I align myself to the fringe, my social status (and I’m willing to bet that of many of the film’s champions, including distributor Nerdist Industries’ head honcho Chris Hardwick) leans more towards Miles than Scott. Not because we don’t think being a nerd is important to us, but because most of us have the ability to not let it interfere with our well-being, like one of Scott’s friends who quits their three year long roleplaying campaign at the beginning of the movie so he can focus on repairing his fledgling marriage—a decision that baffles Scott, because they’re so close to the Goblin Queen’s lair!

I’m willing to step into a ring against anyone who would question the notion that I’m not as committed to my passions as Scott is, but though I’ve been called a nerd derogatorily and know what it’s like to be laughed at (hence my previously mentioned mantra), I was never actively bullied for it at school, nor did it ever really affect my level of confidence with girls or people outside of my after school D&D club. The teacher who founded, supervised, and DMed my D&D club in middle school was actually a friendly, athletic, good-looking man who also happened to be the coach of my school’s soccer team, and I suppose that made a lasting impression on me, to witness on a weekly basis that there is a greater diversity among nerds than just Bill Gates or Gary Gygax.

I ended up developing the belief system that you need not be self-deprecating about your unpopular hobbies. If I think collecting comic books and Magic the Gathering cards is what cool guys do, then it’s what fucking cool guys do and that’s the end of it, and I never allowed it to turn into a problem for me socially. It seems unfair that not all nerds can do the same.

Here’s the thing. The mainstreaming of nerd culture isn’t a purely external effort; it’s not just noobs coming in and taking over because it’s fashionable. There’s a reason why it became fashionable in the first place. It’s the result of sincere efforts by those in the community who don’t fit into the old Comic Book Store Guy stereotype, breaking those stereotypes by increasing their own visibility and making their interests seem appealing to the uninitiated.

When it comes down to it, what Zero Charisma is really about is the temptation to settle with being a big fish in a small pond, which is perhaps why we have those old school nerds who are so protective against the continued popularization of their niche interests. Sam Eidson, who is marvelously believable as Scott, takes the character to a place of peace and understanding by the end of the movie, without ever compromising what makes the character so maladjusted in the first place. Even though the movie basically tells you who’s the more “proud nerd” between Scott and Miles, it refrains from telling you which lifestyle is the correct one, if there is one. It only attempts to capture the different ways a person can find, if not happiness, then a sense of contentment, depending on how you relate to the rest of society.

For that reason alone, Zero Charisma might be the best movie ever made about what it’s like to be a nerd, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to Scott’s brand of nerd.

Zero Charisma is now playing at the Cinema Village in New York, and is also available to rent on VOD.