I'm obsessed with films about obsessive subcultures-so-called "geeksploitation" films. "High Fidelity" is a seminal work in the genre, and "King of Kong" is, I believe, unsurpassed in the documentary format. But where is the film devoted to the travails of a D&D dungeon master? Sam Lipsyte has shown what can be done with such a character in fiction, but the cinematic equivalent did not exist -- until this week, when "Zero Charisma" debuted at South by Southwest.
"Zero Charisma" tells the story of a 30-something gamer named Scott (Sam Eidson), who lives with his grandmother in Austin. His bumper-sticker reads "Because I'm gamemaster, that's why." Much of Scott's life is bleak. He's nagged by his grandmother, yelled at by his boss, and he has no girlfriend. But Scott has a refuge. On Thursdays, his friends come over, and he rules supreme as the gamemaster of a multi-year gaming campaign to defeat the Goblin Queen of the Ungar Mountains. He also maintains an awesome collection of painted lead figurines. You might say, with Hegel in mind, that he is master within his domain, and slave everywhere else.
Things change when one player, Borges the Mighty, decides to quit the game to save his marriage. Scott finds a new player, a handsome young hipster named Miles (Garrett Graham), to join the gaming group (or "nerd herd," as his grandmother puts it).
Scott, to put things mildly, does not deal well with changes to his routine, and he cannot handle the arrival of Miles. The great injustice is that Miles, while he has never paid his dues, is actually a very talented gamer. He threatens everything Scott stands for, and indeed the very idea that you need suffer for art (or nerd cred), the idea that paying dues matters.
I asked filmmakers Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews what truly differentiates Mile the hipster geek from Scott the true nerd. "Scott is really part of an older tradition," Matthews told me, "where you committed to something, and committed fully." Miles, on the other hand "is just sampling. He tries gaming for a while, then maybe it's something else. He's from our age, where you don't really need to commit to anything."
Sam Eidson as Scott carries this hilarious film, particularly in his mighty tantrums at the injustices of the world, which have a Shakespearean quality. While "Portlandia" has done a skit about "the nerd council," "Zero Charisma" is a superior, more in-depth take on the subject. And Dungeons & Dragons, which appears briefly in E.T., plays surprisingly well on screen. "Vroncar's final blow crushes the troll's skull," Scott says to his players, near the beginning, "as he collapses into a bloody, smelly heap."
The slightly depressing insight in this film is that sometimes suffering doesn't make you better. As co-director Andrew Matthews says, it's about his "greatest fear . . . that someone else is doing exactly what you do, but is just better."
Stevens (@thehighsign) is Slate's film critic.