by Rob Boylan
Gaming is often serious business, one that can either end in elation or with the board being hurled furiously across the room, sometimes both at the same time. There have been three films released this year that capture that all-or-nothing soul-lifting/crushing addiction to outmaneuvering your friends in the world of small pieces, and don't require a spec of knowledge about chess or RPGs to enjoy.
In Brooklyn Castle (now streaming), a public junior high school in New York runs riot over the competitive chess world, winning tournament after tournament, team and individual. But now budget cuts threaten the existence of the school's chess program and its incredible 10 year run. Chess is usually used as a metaphor for life in film, and it is here to a degree, but it's also a something of a MacGuffin: chess is the door that lets us into this world filled with special kids who are all playing chess for different reasons, whether it be to help with ADD or to help get into a good college. Getting to know these kids -- and the school's chess coach Elizabeth Vicary, who emerges as a star -- even for a minute, even through video, is an enriching life experience on its own, one that puts back a little bit of the hope that Teen Mom and Jersey Shore sucked out the world.
Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess (now streaming) takes a slightly different route with its chess story. In this early-80s-set faux documentary, computer programmers take up battle against each other in a depressing roadside hotel ballroom in Texas to see who has the superior machine. Peter (Patrick Riester), of the returning champion Cal Tech team, discovers a flaw in the latest version of their software: it would rather play against humans than computers, and nerdy sexual tension begins to pull at the story when he asks the only girl at the tournament, Shelly (Robin Schwartz) from the MIT team, to help him figure it out. The theories range from programming error to government involvement in this deadpan, quirky comedy. The film was shot in black and white with an early vacuum tube video camera. It's a strange flourish, one that could have been a distraction, but actually ends up helping sustain the film's warped sense of atmosphere. As the Dissolve's Matt Singer put it, "every color of the autism spectrum in muddy black and white."
In Zero Charisma (now streaming), a charming, nerdy hipster joins a long running D&D-type tabletop role playing game and butts heads with the surly, overweight cartoon character of a Game Master who has sucked all the fun out of the proceedings. The Game Master, Scott (Sam Edison), is the that guy, the geek who lives in his high school bedroom and works in a donut shop. He is the living embodiment of the quote, "Yeah dating is cool but have you ever had stuffed crust pizza?" The lack of life comes out in Scott's intricate RPG writing, but the thin structure it provides him shatters easily when things stop going his way for a second. He ends up losing his game to Miles (Garrett Graham), the nerdy hipster, and his friends along with it. The film trades on long held stereotypes about geeks and cool kids, and why they don't necessarily mix, but directors Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham paint an enchanting, realistic story with their limited palette. The lows are quite low and the victories are very small, but that's how real life tends to work.