Navigating online relationships safely is a topic that many of us are familiar with nowadays. But writer and director Jon Stevenson explores a different kind of virtual relationship in his debut feature “Rent-A-Pal,” a thoroughly weird but impressive throwback/horror/drama/comedy commentary on loneliness.
Set in 1990, “Rent-A-Pal” follows David (Brian Landis Folkins), a 40-year-old single man who lives with his mother (Kathleen Brady), who has dementia, so he can care for her. He doesn’t have a job and spends most of his time looking after her, but in his spare time David participates in a video dating service, trying to find a partner. Essentially, participants record their introductions and what they want in a relationship to a VHS tape, others can rent the tapes and bring them home to watch, and when they find someone they like, they are matched through the company. David hasn’t had much luck with it so far, but on one trip to the video store, he decides to bring home a VHS tape he finds titled “Rent-A-Pal.” It’s a video of a man called Andy (Wil Wheaton), a friendly a charismatic guy who talks to the camera, tells stories, and asks questions, frequently pausing to provide an opportunity for viewers to feel like they are having a conversation with him. Initially weirded out by the video, it isn’t long before David becomes attached to Andy and considers him his only real friend. But when things start to look up in David’s life, will Andy interfere?
We’ve seen borderline cliché characters like David many times before: older, awkward, lonely, lives with his mother. But Folkins does a lot with his character—and Stevenson does a lot with his story—to make his problems resonate. Stevenson doesn’t rush the film along by any means. The opening scenes unfold slowly, concentrating on David performing mundane daily tasks: cooking for and feeding his mother, folding laundry, assisting his mother in the bath, helping her into bed. The audience doesn’t need to be explicitly told much to get a sense of what David’s life and personality is like; when he calls the video store to ask if he has had any matches, he addresses the clerk, Diane (played by Adrian Egolf), in a way that suggests that he makes this same phone call often, and he is often given the same answer. Folkins is fantastic at portraying the full range of his character. In the scenes with his mother Lucille, we understand that he is a great caregiver for her, but also that her frequently mistaking him for Frank—his deceased father—is a constant, underlying frustration. When these frustrations bubble to the surface later on, Folkins can be downright terrifying, but in these early scenes, he is very sweet and vulnerable. Brady’s character is likewise vulnerable, but her crotchety nature suggests that David perhaps had a hard time growing up with her.
A highlight of the film, however, is Wheaton’s winning performance as Andy, a role that confines him entirely to being a face on a television screen, while still allowing him to be an alternately charismatic and unnerving presence. We see a lot of the same shots of Andy over and over again, as David frequently rewinds and rewatches the tape, but Stevenson (who also edited the film), crafts the montages of this happening so that we really get a sense of time passing, while the editing paired with the score also lend the same bits of dialogue a different tone when necessary (light-hearted early in the movie, but menacing later on). The fact that Wheaton himself was a staple in several big film and TV projects of the late 80s and early 90s contributes to the 90s aesthetic, which “Rent-A-Pal” nails from the sets and costumes to its premise. The early close-up shots of the inner workings of David’s VCR serve as both a point of nostalgia as well as a hint at how important that object will be to the story to come. It’s clear that a lot of work was especially taken with Andy and ensuring that his tape looked and sounded like the real deal, while details like increased interference further accentuate the scenes where Andy deviates from his usual script.
The audience is clued in pretty quickly to the instances where it becomes apparent that Andy isn’t just a detached actor on the TV, beginning with him addressing David by name and later holding conversation with him that couldn’t possibly have been filmed beforehand. But interestingly, while the viewer notices this, David never does. In fact, despite his evident early misgivings, there’s never a moment where we see him express that he is aware that Andy is talking back to him. You could argue that David’s obsession with Andy is so far gone by that point that he is incapable of taking a step back and really understanding what is happening, but there’s no discernible decision-making behind the evolution of his relationship with Andy, which after a slow build over the course of the film, progresses very quickly in the third act. The finale of “Rent-A-Pal” actually takes a dark and twisted turn away from what come before it, turning what was up to a point a very enjoyable film into something extremely uncomfortable and disturbing to watch. The first two thirds of the movie build sympathy for David and his situation. When he finally gets a date with Lisa (charmingly played by Amy Rutledge), a nice girl who can relate to him, we root for him. The final act reverses that very quickly, offering no chance of redemption for a protagonist we’ve come to somewhat care for, and a bleak take on the side effects of loneliness. The movie’s tone also shifts quite a bit, initially primarily a drama with both some light and dark comedy bits here and there, and moving more into straight horror by the end.
Despite some flaws, “Rent-A-Pal” is still a creative and well-crafted film, with performances and set pieces that lend it believability, making it a stellar debut feature for Stevenson. And despite being a period piece, there’s an added layer of meaning watching this movie during this time where most people are still in social isolation. Many of us are currently searching for connection, and using technology to do so from home; the technology may be different, but the quest is the same.
“Rent-A-Pal” will be released by IFC Midnight on September 11, both on demand and in select theaters. Runtime: 108 minutes. Not rated. 4 out of 5 stars.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.