“That’s not how you use that card”
Can a film about twenty-eight year olds be considered a coming-of-age story? I guess it can when the two men in question were teenage professional gamers because that’s exactly what Robert Imbs‘ Game Changers is. And if we really thought about it, that age is a pretty critical crossroads in a person’s life regardless of the path they’ve taken to get there. Thirty is kind of an unspoken cut off point where maturity is either embraced or ignored forever. That’s a gross generalization considering the life of a pro gamer is just as legitimate as that of a doctor or lawyer when it comes to dedication and skill within the vocation—laugh if you will, but I do believe this even if gaming is far from as important—but you get the idea.
Even from the opening scene of a grade school Scott (Matthew Owen Kozak) sitting awkwardly at a lunchroom table waiting for the one kid who understands him to arrive—best friend Bryan (Koby Morgan)—we can anticipate the eventual fork in lifestyle choices to come. Back then the two got really good at Halo and with the support of their parents made a ton of money showing the world they were the best. At a certain point it all had to end, though, and it’s a decade later when we meet them next after they’ve turned their tech savvy into IT careers. Scott (now played by Jake Albarella) is still the responsible shy one while Bryan (Brian Bernys) has retained the charismatic ego and air of superiority that placed him on countless magazine covers in youth.
It’s unsurprising to find they have been treading water in a pool of uncertainty only exacerbated by boss—and Bryan’s father—Mr. Sanders (Vincent O’Neill) hiring a corporate efficiency firm to gauge employee success. Led by the clean-cut, literal antithesis to everything Bryan and Scott are (Barry Williams‘ Jake), this team of consultants poses a threat to them if only implicitly. The boys probably have nothing to worry about because they are good at their jobs, but the fact they’re being evaluated has the perpetually competitive and unsatisfied Bryan on edge. Is this where he wants to be or is the effort necessary to put on a smile and tie better spent putting his hand back into gaming one last time? Even more crucial is whether he can do it without Scott at his side.
Where most filmmakers would take this story is onto a sports team trajectory of training, competition, and healthy dose of just deserts either with loved ones by their athletes’ side or disposed of at the curb in a cutthroat game of priorities. Imbs isn’t interested in such a targeted focus despite working with an almost exclusively crowd-funded budget totaling fewer than thirty thousand dollars. Rather than just craft a story we’ve all seen before by substituting football or basketball stars with headset-wearing World of Warcraft phenoms, he’s injected a human element steeped in a reality that ultimately frowns upon gaming as an adolescent fantasy unbefitting of a grown-up. While you’d assume this would be done in a pejorative manner, however, the truth exposes a delicate balance able to show both sides of the coin.
As one friend loses himself back inside the solitary life of grinding until 6am to gain experience points for the next huge fight, the other begins to see there’s more beyond the console and hours spent engaging with people he’s never actually met. By having these two trajectories intersect and move towards the other’s starting point, Imbs gives credence to both choices rather than taking a definitive position that risks alienating his audience. There’s no right or wrong, only right and wrong ways to go about achieving their goals. Bryan’s assumption that Scott wants what he does couldn’t be farther from the truth and despite the latter showing his indifference at every turn, the former refuses to acknowledge it. Bryan has always wanted Scott to stand up for himself, but he never anticipated he’d be on the receiving end.
This is the coming-of-age part that trumps everything else. Game Changers isn’t about the world of competitive gaming as much as it is about the players facing challenges and life decisions to which we all can relate. It’s about whether or not to keep the attractive girlfriend who wants you to be someone you’re not. It’s about finding the confidence to ask out the girl who’s too good to be true. And it’s always about supporting your brother—because that’s what Bryan and Scott have become—no matter what path they choose to take. This is the main conflict because while one accepts the other’s desire to reclaim his dream by providing help, the other is blind to the fact he’s never returned the favor. The result is inevitably messy and the emotional fallout potentially irrevocable.
Imbs’ script is inherently funny due to its subject and affords gags like a nerd with a runny nose caught looking like a deer-in-headlights at the comic shop’s one female customer, but it’s also highly dramatic in its character dynamics. Bryan will do whatever it takes to run his WOW team like a well-oiled machine and he crosses countless lines in the process. This means that as loose and sarcastic as things are at the start, everything buttons-up quickly once professional and romantic bonds break via disappointment. The acting from this Buffalo, NY-local cast might not be perfect, but each actor steps up when the stakes are highest to add a welcome sense of authenticity to its bittersweet climax. Credit Imbs and cinematographer Benjamin Eckstein too for some memorable visual set-ups that enhance the emotional drama even more.
Knowledge of the videogame world isn’t needed to appreciate the human story beneath. Relationship issues caused by Bryan and Natalie’s (Andrea Andolina) laissez faire attitude towards commitment are as relatable as the nervous tension between Scott and Kim (Sara Marioles) and each member of the quartet is afforded his/her own moment of clarity to look within and discover exactly what they want. This results in more strain on Bernys and Albarella’s pairing, but Dominic Luongo‘s (Alan) deadpan hilarity and Matt Chavez‘s clueless Gus counter it by infusing the right amount of comic relief. And while Bryan and Scott’s friendship is too established to completely dissolve from the ensuing chaos, don’t think their bond won’t bend. Those cracks being put on full display without the misguided inclination to clumsily mend them with cliché is Game Changers‘ greatest success.