In the midst of a festival featuring scary and gory movies, Gamerz provided a welcome change of pace. The title sounds appropriately geeky, but the movie is essentially an old-fashioned coming-of-age relationship comedy wrapped in the universe of role-playing gamers. The film from Scotland had its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest this week.
Gamerz is set in contemporary Glasgow, which is unusual for geek films. Ralph (Ross Finbow), who is starting his first semester at the local university, is obsessed with a role-playing fantasy game (along the lines of Dungeons and Dragons) that he's created himself. He creates elaborate Lego mazes in his bedroom, and sketches them in the middle of physics classes. In fact, he takes a teaching assistant job just to gain access to the departmental copy machine so he can duplicate his rulebooks ... and discovers forbidden depths of the university buildings that would provide a fantastic setting for game nights. Ralph soon takes over as gamekeeper of a student union group and leads them into the secret tunnels to play, winning approval from fellow gamer Marlyn (Danielle Stewart), with whom he's smitten.
If, like me, you grew up watching the cheesy 1980 TV movie Mazes and Monsters, the above storyline might sound somewhat familiar. However, the similarities end there. Gamerz takes a fairly positive look at the gaming world, with only the occasional mild mocking, and is a fairly accurate depiction of role-playing games. Mazes and Monsters capitalized on what seemed like a short-term trend at the time to hint that teenagers role-playing was one more destructive activity in a world of dysfunctional and decaying relationships. (That's Rona Jaffe for you.) The characters in Gamerz don't put themselves in physical or even mental peril while playing the game. They do take risks by playing the game in illicit or interesting locations, but the no one mistakes the game world for the real world.
I was impressed with the way in which Gamerz depicted the fantasy universe that the gamers were entering when they played. The game characters are depicted in silhouette, looking almost like cut-outs against a brightly colored background. It's a simple but effective way to visually involve the audience in the game.
Americans are bound to compare any light comedy from Scotland with the films of Bill Forsyth, the best-known director from Scotland who raises quirky characterization to a whole new level. Gamerz might remind you a bit of Gregory's Girl -- the main character is a teen loser who falls for a seemingly unattainable girl whom he can never quite understand, for example. The characters in Gamerz are funny, but fairly standard types, portrayed by a capable cast of actors generally unknown in the U.S. I particularly liked James Young, who played Lennie, Ralph's former nemesis who reveals a hidden love for fantasy games. And admittedly, Forsyth never created a character who burped all his dialogue, like Hank, portrayed by Ross Sutherland.
I had a little trouble parsing all the dialogue in Gamerz -- I'm not used to heavy Scot accents and slang. However, it wasn't necessary to understand every single word to enjoy the film. The audience laughed a lot, so no one else had a serious problem with the accents either.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn't maintain the delightful geek restyling of reality in the first scene, where Ralph's voiceover turns his last night at a grocery-stocking job into a minor quest. ("Behold the tower of ... peas!") The film does include a lot of silly gags throughout -- when the credits of a movie include three stunt burpers and one stunt farter, you know it's not exactly a sophisticated comedy. I may be six years old sometimes, but I thought most of the gags were funny -- the candles on the table during the climactic game scene were a nice comic touch.
Gamerz strikes me as a good DVD rental -- entertaining to non-geeks, without mocking the role-playing game world. It's worth a look if you get the opportunity.