Starring Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard and Brandon Fryman.
Screenplay by Jon Stevenson.
Directed by Jon Stevenson.
Distributed by IFC Midnight. 109 minutes. Not Rated.
“He talks to you. He listens to you. He understands you.”
The above is the tagline to the fascinating new horror film Rent-A-Pal, and even on the poster you can’t quite decide if that description is a selling point or a veiled threat.
Taking place in 1990 – still sociologically the 80s although technically the 90s – Rent-A-Pal is based on a fascinating era-specific oddity. “Rent-A-Friend: The Original Video Companion” was a VHS tape for lonely people, essentially a one-way conversation that the viewer could “interact” with. The Rent-A-Friend was Ben Hollis, who later went on to become an Emmy-winning Chicago TV personality. The videotape took advantage of a sad, but very viable human dilemma: Have no friends? What if you could rent one?
Of course the world has moved on and social media has made us more connected. Zoom and Facetime and the like have made “Rent-A-Friend”’s clunky interaction obsolete. Still, there is something charmingly seductive about this low-tech video buddy. And something just a bit creepy, too.
That’s the germ for writer/director Jon Stevenson’s thriller. What if your Rent-A-Pal could actually interact with you? What if his intentions are not as pure as his tan-and-blue khakis and sweater vest getup suggests? What if you are so desperately lonely and unstable that you are not even sure if your conversations with your new “pal” are real, or if they are all in your head?
Wow, that’s quite a meta concept. And in Rent-A-Pal, it mostly works very well.
The lonesome loser that is at the center of the action is David (Brian Landis Folkins), a desperately solitary man in Denver who lives with and cares for his mother (Kathleen Brady) who is suffering from dementia. Because he must be there for his mother fulltime, David can’t work. He has no friends.
He is so desperate for love that his one extravagance is a membership at Video Rendezvous – an old-school 90s dating service where you go in, make a video tape and hope to find your perfect match from dozens of other single people’s videos. However, like everything else in his life, the whole video dating scene is a complete disaster. After six months he hasn’t gotten a single nibble, however he is constantly paying for upgrades and services.
It’s at Video Rendezvous that he meets his “Rent-A-Pal,” a VHS tape stuck in a bargain bin of specialty videos. The Rent-A-Pal is Andy (Wil Wheaton of Stand By Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Big Bang Theory), a pleasantly charming companion who interacts in obvious and not so obvious ways, until it starts to become more and more noticeable that he has some really dark shadings. Or is that all in David’s head?
David and Andy interact in subtle and funny ways, which is pretty amazing because Folkins and Wheaton never physically appear onscreen together. (Obviously, since Andy is just a person on a TV set.) You’re never quite sure why Andy becomes such an indispensable friend to him. Andy can be kind of a dick; clingy, jealous and he plays two very cruel pranks on David. And what’s the deal with that sweater vest?
However, this isn’t so much about Andy – well it is, and it isn’t – it’s more about the potential unraveling of David. His life, his desperation, his loneliness, his depression, his arrested development, his responsibility to his mother. When life finally deals him a good hand – he finally gets a bite on Video Rendezvous and Lisa (Amy Rutledge) may be the perfect woman for David – Andy doesn’t take it well at all.
It’s a terrific conflict. I wish I could say the resolution lived up to the idea, but the movie ends up spinning out a bit. Honestly, it gets a little more violent than necessary; I know this is a thriller but the psychological horror it displays is much more interesting than physical horror. It doesn’t by any means ruin the film, but I was hoping for a slightly better ending than the one we get.
By the way, they didn’t take selfies in 1990, but otherwise the film is spookily era-specific, and yet at the same time it is oddly timeless. Rent-A-Pal may not quite stick the landing, but the film has so many interesting ideas and quirky interactions that it is well worth the rental. Just don’t get Andy mad.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 10, 2020.