Written and Directed by Jon Stevenson.
Starring Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, and Wil Wheaton.
Set in 1990, a lonely bachelor named David (Brian Landis Folkins) searches for an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of caring for his aging mother (Kathleen Brady). While seeking a partner through a video dating service, he discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape offers him much-needed company, compassion, and friendship. But, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.
Well, Rent-A-Pal is certainly unpredictable, although designed that way to an aggravating fault. Labeled as a thriller and being distributed by IFC Midnight, it’s to be expected that the proceedings are going to get twisted, and I have no problem with that, especially considering writer/director Jon Stevenson (making his feature-length debut as a writer and first time directing) is adept when it comes to drawing characters and layering them with motives, tragedy, darkness, and a surprising sweetness. At times, it’s probably normal to not want Rent-A-Pal to go down an inevitable disturbed path since it’s already a well-executed character study of an introverted and socially awkward, bullied from elementary school mama’s boy now 40 years old living in her basement while caretaking and tending to her dementia riddled needs.
When David (an unkempt and hopelessly weird but sympathetic Brian Landis Folkins) is not trying to explain to his mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady) that he’s not her deceased husband Frank or cooking her basic Kraft macaroni and cheese meals (going as far as spoon-feeding her knowing full well that she will be defiant only to try herself and struggle), he’s watching various VHS tapes (the film apparently takes place in 1990, and there is an admirable attempt to decorate the limited locations with era-appropriate objects and clothing) of individual random ladies briefly talking about themselves similar to something you would see on someone’s online dating profile. The service is basically Tinder for the early 90s.
People go to the service, record their own short bios (men are held to around 30 seconds as naturally there are more guys than girls on the market), the tapes get mailed out to other subscribers, and then girls use the call center to match with guys they are interested in. Now, I was only one-year-old in 1990 so I have no idea if this is something that actually existed, but nonetheless it’s a creative framing device for any kind of movie. It’s like You’ve Got Mail but before the Internet and crossed with horror, except in this case the genre trappings gradually hurt the film over time until it becomes downright nasty and unpleasant.
Nevertheless, it’s obvious that the sadsack loser still living with his mother is going to have trouble generating some interest. Even for those that are attractive mentally and physically, it’s not exactly easy to hook someone in 500 words or less. So, in the meantime, David checks out an unrelated videotape called Rent-A-Pal, which sees Andy (a creepy Wil Wheaton resembling a live-action version of a Chucky doll) offering undying companionship and friendship. He’s overly kind, asks questions, and is always willing to listen. Clearly, much of this is in David’s head who is doing nothing more than interacting with recorded footage. His mind is deteriorating from loneliness and perhaps the lack of control he has over his own life, which slowly makes him more prone to neglecting his mother unless it’s to earn some good faith from a nearby nurse named Lisa (Amy Rutledge) that matches with him.
David’s fixation with Andy feels forced and unbelievable and some of his treatment towards Lisa becomes laughably inconsistent with what we know about him as a person. Jon Stevenson has potentially crafted a character that, while most definitely strange and admittedly creepy, doesn’t seem capable of going to the places the movie eventually goes. In general, the entire climax is ridiculous and undoes everything from strong character work, to solid acting amidst unorthodox situations, to an intriguing approach to connecting with others. Andy seems to represent a cynical voice inside David’s head that today would be part of the MGTOW (men going their own way) movement, and watching that indoctrination is unnerving. The narrative as a whole just doesn’t click, full-on embracing shock value for its finale, ending on nothing substantial.
Rent-A-Pal is a thriller that’s more of an unsettling and darkly funny drama for its first two thirds, and it should have stayed that way for the remainder of the film rather than straining the concept for unearned violence. It’s assuredly engaging, but someone needed to rip out the entire third act and rewrite it. And that’s not even mentioning how contrived some plot elements are, to begin with, but those are mildly acceptable given the story itself is nothing if not unique.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com