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FANTASIA 2013: Capone takes a look at the geek culture tale ZERO CHARISMA and the sci-fi love story OXV: THE MANUAL!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Montreal here for the Fantasia International Film Festival, a long-running and truly massive genre-centric event that lasts about three weeks (I'm here for about a week of that). I've just wrapped up Day 4 for me, and today's selections include a fan favorite from the SXSW Film Festival and the remarkable science-fiction story heavy on the science and the romance (but not in a lame way). Enjoy…

An Audience Winner at SXSW and recently announced as the first feature to be distributed by Nerdist Industries, ZERO CHARISMA is the story of an angry, controlling nerd. And while the film is initially played for laughs as Sam (MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE) Eidson's Scott perfects the role as the man-child game master of a three-years-running roll playing game with this tolerant friends, the more we learn about the man, the more we learn to take pity on him, even while he's throwing tantrums when he doesn't get his way and doing everything in his power to drive his friends away.

Scott is not an easy man to like; in fact, some audience members may watch the entire film and never find a reason to enjoy watching him, let alone empathize with his solitary life. He lives with his grandmother (the godsend Anne Gee Byrd), works at a taco-donut combo fast food joint, and spends hours coming up with new adventures and characters for his custom-made RPG. As his small group of friends play, Scott's true personality rises to the surface and he becomes a controlling, mocking dick. But when newcomer Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the game (after another friend leaves to save his marriage--Scott is willing to give the guy a little time to pull his shit together, but that's all), Scott feels threatened by this hip nerd, whose website gets hundreds of thousands of hits on a daily basis and actually gets to live the life that Scott has always seen himself leading.

Before long, Scott's jealousy causes him to lose all his friends, and frankly, he deserves to. But first-time feature directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews (Matthews wrote the screenplay as well) wisely allow Scott's newfound low to act as a means to see what went in to making this ogre of a man. When his grandmother has a mild stroke, Scott's absentee mother (Cyndi Williams) shows up pretending to be concerned when in fact she's looking to sell the house to pay off debts. Clearly, Scott's selfish habits did not come from his grandmother.

The most impressive thing about ZERO CHARISMA is how it captures the geek culture without mocking it. It reveals the very real fears of these (mostly) men that they are looked upon as losers, a status they can put forget when they are together arguing whether the Millennium Falcon of the Starship Enterprise is faster. They're also afraid to let each other go. When Scott's closest friend Wayne (Brock England) voices even the slightest chance that he might have met a woman online to date, Scott discourages a face-to-face meeting because she'll probably think he's a dork. Scott is a master and undermining any signs of confidence his friends might display, even for a second. I told you, the guy is a tried-and-true asshole.

Of all of the fine cast members, I can't wait to see what Eidson does next. The way he goes from zero to game-master psychotic is the blink of an eye is fantastic. He's a physically threatening presence, but something in his eyes tells us he's also never going to hurt someone else…and if that's the vibe you get, you may be in for a big surprise. Scott is indeed one of the most true-to-life characters of his kind I've ever seen in a film that takes nerds seriously, and Eidson makes him breathe real, musty air.

The other smart thing the filmmakers do is not to fully redeem Scott by the end of the film. He's certainly learned some valuable lessons, but he's far from being 100 percent supportive of anyone. The film treats all of its characters like real people, complete with a laundry list of flaws and abrasive personality traits. The film even manages to capture nerd culture with necessarily promoting or discouraging people from becoming a part of it. It simply gives us examples of a few of its flagship members, and muses, "If you think you can live like this, join in." The rest is up to you, but the film is well worth checking out even if you decides it's more of a cautionary tale about what happens when you venture into the dark and dangerous land of nerds.

One could easily get lost in just discussing the winding plot that folds back in on itself and gives us three different views of many of the same events. But talking too much about the story and not enough about the larger ideas at play in writer-director Darren Paul Fisher's remarkably beautiful science-fiction/romance OXV: THE MANUAL would be a gigantic mistake, because it's the encompassing themes and discussions about free will, destiny, perfection, luck, science, manipulation, and the very definition of love that fuel this thought-provoking work.

I'm sure when I mention "love," many of you will run for the hills, but within this context of a boy falling in love with a girl, and the girl wanting to find the exact right circumstances in which to fall in love with him, there's a universe of great thoughts and conversations about a world where people's destiny as far as education, occupation and relationships are determined at a young age during a test given to blindfolded children to discover their "frequency."

Marie (played as an adult by Eleanor Wyld, although we see the character both as a young girl and a teenager) scores about as high as you can go on the test, and as a result she essentially lives the life of an emotionless creature, whose luck in endless and she always gets what she wants. Her "friends" call her "the machine." Zak (Daniel Fraser), on the other hand gets a negative score. Their frequencies are so polar opposite that they can't even stand next to each other for more than a minute without some massive, often catastrophic happening, which is a shame because even at a young age, he's madly in love with her.

Zak, with the help and encouragement of his good friend and classmate Theo (Owe Pugh), set about trying to find a way to chemically or otherwise make it possible to raise his frequency and/or lower Marie's so they are more evenly matched. And if I go any deeper into the story, I could be entering spoiler territory. But suffice it to say, their solution to the problem is fascinating, devious and loaded with unforeseen side effects. I will, however, say that their experimenting allows Marie to experience real emotion for the first time in her life, and she's as happy as she's ever been.

OXV: THE MANUAL goes into darker corridors as the story progresses. The government gets involving, Marie's parents are concerned about her being with a boy of lower frequency, but are loving their daughter's newfound feelings. The film nosedives into theory and contemplations that I could only skim the surface of with my fully-functioning brain. Director Fisher does not skimp on the science portion of his sci-fi tale, and the result is a wildly smart, atmospheric and contemplative piece of hopeful filmmaking. There are messages about the dangers of putting on a smile for appearances sake, for flirting just to see if you're good at it, and for living a life without a soundtrack at all times.

The actors are as talented as they are appealing, but their performances are layered and very deliberate, especially Wyld's take on Marie, who transitions from unfeeling robot to a being of pure emotions, which can be rough for someone who has never experienced them before. In case you can't tell, I adored this intelligent, curious film about the very essence and mechanics of caring for someone. Fisher deconstructs the process in a fictitious way that still resonates with truth, and by stripping away all of the cutesy behavior and awful stuff of romantic-comedies, he's arrived with a movie that is both sweet and dangerous. OXV: THE MANUAL is not afraid to get brainy, nor does it shy away from a bit of magic. I'm not sure I could pass a frequency test on this film, but that didn't stop me from loving it.

-- Steve Prokopy
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