It’s hard to imagine watching a movie about people who sit around playing Dungeons & Dragons-like games. It’s not the most visually compelling of pursuits. It also strains credulity a bit, in a world that now has massively multiplayer online role-playing games (which have, essentially, replaced old-fashioned D&D), to think that university students would obsess over a game like this. Gamerz handles both of these causes for concern with wonderful deftness: to make the game more interesting, an imaginative hybrid of animation and live-action shows us the content of the game as it’s narrated by the dungeonmaster; to make us believe these folks would play these games, we’re given the hilarious throwaway explanation that seeing Lord of the Rings under the influence of psychedelics would inspire a 20-something to pick up a 20-sided die.
On a deeper level, playing this game is about having control. The group who play it have been dealt crummy lots in life, against their wills. How do they get it back? By creating characters that are, on many levels, idealized versions of themselves. Our hero, Ralph (played by the perfectly cast Ross Finbow), goes one better: he writes his own game, creating an entire universe out of thin air. In the game, he can assert all the control he lacks in real life. In his ordinary life, Ralph lives with his grandmother (his parents have died) in a rough section of Glasgow. When he’s not spending time working on his game, he mostly gets beaten up by a street gang and fantasizes about women who might give him the time of day if he had the guts to ask them out.
The object of his affection, Marlyn (Danielle Stewart, who does a great job at playing vulnerability and toughness, while still being funny), is a part of the University of Glasgow’s fantasy RPG club. She shows some interest in Ralph, especially after he shows the club his game, and they share similar backgrounds. Things get complicated (as they often do) when Ralph reluctantly lets his former friend, a hood named Lennie (hilarious James Young), take part in the game. Not only do Lennie and Marlyn appear to know each other already, Ralph notices a mutual attraction between the two of them.
Gamerz really shines when it becomes a fairly dark, skewed take on the romantic comedy. The more Ralph learns about Marlyn as he pursues, the less he really wants her. At some point, it stops being about wanting her and transforms into acts of passive-aggressive hostility via the game—where Ralph has all the control. It builds to a surprisingly effective and tense finale with results that aren’t the norm in a romantic comedy, and because of that its conclusion is very satisfying. One of Gamerz‘s biggest strengths is its ability to use the framework of a genre without falling into the pitfalls of formula. It tells a story about a love triangle, but it’s so deeply ingrained in its characters (who are a complex lot) that it works exceptionally well. Its comedy has a subdued, deadpan quality that manages simultaneous hilarity and heartbreak—not an easy task.
It’s a credit to both Ross Finbow and first-time writer/director Robbie Fraser that, as he gets hurt and becomes more malicious toward Marlyn within the game, Ralph remains a lovable underdog. We don’t necessarily want him to act the way he does, but we are given ample reason to empathize with his actions. This isn’t easy to pull off, but Gamerz does it with impressive ease. In fact, the entire cast—no matter how small the role—is pitch-perfect, and Fraser gives each character a few quirks. Even the least developed characters feel like real people. If American romantic comedies still had this level of bravery and complexity, it wouldn’t be such an embarrassing, dying genre.