SXSW Review: Zero Charisma
The Austin-shot movie Zero Charisma may be as close as we ever get to a cinematic adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces. Scott Weidemeier, as portrayed by Sam Eidson, bears a strong resemblance to a contemporary Ignatius J. Reilly, if Ignatius were transplanted to a lesser city than New Orleans and had been introduced to role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. (Which leads me to ponder an Ignatius-approved RPG set in the time of Boethius, but I digress.)
What makes Zero Charisma so watchable is that Eidson and filmmakers Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews lead us to sympathize with a character as appalling and unlikeable as Ignatius would be, if we encountered him in real life. Scott is living with his grandmother in a glorious Fifties time capsule of a bungalow (with decor that would close Ignatius's valve), working as a delivery boy for the Donut Taco Palace, and in the rest of his spare time, creating and playing his own D&D-like role-playing game in which, naturally, he is the Game Master.
Scott's life is pretty routine until Fortuna spins her wheel and two horrible things happen: one of his regular RPG players drops out of the years-long game, and his grandmother suffers a stroke that brings Sam's mother (Cyndi Williams) and her husband back in town and invading Scott's sanctuary. He finds a new player, Miles (Garrett Graham), but Miles turns out to be a rival for the attention and perhaps allegiance of Scott's regular players.
Eidson is just amazing in his first lead film role, making me want to kick him and give him a hug all at the same time. He's supported by an excellent cast -- veteran Williams as his mom, with a streak of cruelty in one scene that's just unbelievable; Graham, who keeps you guessing about whether Miles is a nice guy with hipster trimmings or a class-A jerk with smooth social skills; and John Gholson (also a local film writer) as the manager of a game-supply store where Scott used to work. Gholson and Eidson are especially sparky together -- an interesting contrast to Scott's behavior when he encounters Miles's lovely and sweet girlfriend Kendra (Katie Folger).
Special praise to whoever designed Scott's abode as well as Miles and Kendra's digs -- the very different abodes seem to each have a character of their own, enhancing the story and characters greatly and also adding another layer of amusement to Zero Charisma.
I'm still not sure whether I like the ending -- sometimes I feel like it sacrifices a real resolution for Scott in favor of a one-liner, sometimes I'm glad it doesn't wrap everything up in a tidy Hollywood package of character salvation. But the climactic scene, in which Scott truly parallels Ignatius and his avenging sword of Taste and Decency (or maybe Belushi near the end of Animal House) is wonderfully energetic and satisfying.
Zero Charisma won the narrative spotlight audience award at SXSW this year, and understandably so. It's a crowd-pleaser, especially if you are a gamer, a geek, or spend a lot of time with geeks. It's easy to say it might have been a better fit for Fantastic Fest, but that elusive quality of empathy for unlikeable characters gives the movie a more universal appeal. Most of us believe we have an inner Scott, and his actions make us glad we can keep our own Scotts under control ... and sometimes provide a little wish fulfillment too.
Austin connections: Zero Charisma was shot in Austin with a local cast and crew. Recognizable locations include the Donut Taco Palace and Great Hall Games. Fans of Austin film might recognize actors Lowell Bartholomee, Jennymarie Jemison, and Ashley Spillers. Katie Folger is also in SXSW 2013 film Grow Up, Tony Phillips. Former Drafthouse staffer Zack Carlson is one of the film's producers.