At first glance you might be tempted to consider David a punchline. He’s a forty-ish introvert who literally lives in his elderly mother’s basement. But not long into the new thriller “Rent-A-Pal” we see there is another side to David, a compassionate and dutiful side. He’s actually still at home because his mother has dementia and needs constant care. His father died 10 years prior leaving David as his mother’s primary caregiver. He fulfills the role diligently and honorably, shelving any ambitions for his own life to take care of his mother.
“Rent-A-Pal”, written, directed, and edited by Jon Stevenson, opens as a character study of a lonely single man entering middle-age with no meaningful connections to society. Brian Landis Folkins plays David with a sincerity and earnestness that instantly grabs our sympathies. David is more than a hapless sad sack. He has a big heart and he’s driven by a well-meaning compulsion to be there for his mother (Kathleen Brady). Of course we know the dangers of such self oppression so it’s no surprise once that pent-up bitterness begins to crack David’s otherwise benevolent surface.
Stevenson wastes no time shifting from character study to slow-drip psychological thriller. I didn’t catch an actual setting, but his story feels plucked right out of the late 1980s, before there was an internet and when VHS was the hottest thing in home entertainment￼. As they were in the 80s, video tapes are everywhere in Stevenson’s film. From sweet moments with his mother watching their fuzzy copy of “His Girl Friday” to getting tapes of potential matches from a dodgy dating service called Video Rendezvous. It’s David’s connection to the latter that pulls on the loose thread of his psyche which slowly begins to unravel.
After months with no matches David visits the Video Rendezvous headquarters to update his profile. While there he comes across a bargain bin video tape called “Rent-A-Pal” which he promptly purchases. Through it he’s introduced to Andy (Whil Wheaton), a sweater vest-wearing interactive buddy in the gentle, unassuming Mister Rogers mold. In the video Andy simulates human conversation by asking scripted questions, pausing so the viewer can answer, and then feigning interest in the responses. At first David sees through Andy’s canned act even finding it “weird“. But as disappointments mount in the real world and his mental state erodes, David starts to play along with Andy and his skepticism turns to obsession. ￼He forms an unsettling bond with his TV buddy believing he’s finally found a friend who listens and cares.
The tipping point comes when David gets a surprise call from Video Rendezvous who have finally found him a match. They set him up on a date with the genuinely sweet and caring Lisa (Amy Rutledge). The two hit it off and immediately plan their next date. But back home Andy (now more of an on-screen projection from David’s mind) lashes out like a jilted lover. So on one side he has Lisa who has given him a taste of the happiness he’s longed for (and you could say is his door back to reality). On the other is Andy, an outlet for his loneliness and desperation which adds fuel to his darker, uncontrollable impulses.
Despite its wacky premise, “Rent-A-Pal” works because it doesn’t see its subject matter as a joke. There are certainly dark comedy elements (some of which are quite funny), but the film takes David and his issues seriously. It doesn’t always strike that tricky balance perfectly and there were moments when I couldn’t tell if the movie was laughing at him or not. Still I give Stevenson and Folkins credit. Together they give David depth, making him more than a one-dimensional caricature. Meanwhile Whil Wheaton gives one of the more chilling portrayals of the year. He alone makes this well worth watching. “Rent-A-Pal” is now streaming on VOD.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS