Director: Jon Stevenson
Duration: 01 Hr 48 Mins
Release Date: 11th September 2020 (USA)
Star Cast: Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard, Brandon Fryman
Plot: Rent-A-Pal is an American thriller feature film, set in 1990. It is about a lonely, awkward, unemployed 40-year-old bachelor, named David (Brian Landis Folkins).
To escape from the day-to-day chores of caring, for his aging mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), he looks out for a partner, through a video dating service.
Since the film is set back in 1990, David isn’t on the internet. But he participates and subscribes to a VHS dating service, for a set of tapes featuring women. In hope of meeting his soulmate. However, he hasn’t been having much luck.
It is when at the dating service office, David catches sight of another tape, a video labeled ‘Rent-a-Pal,’ he impulsively purchases it. When he pops the tape into his VCR, he comes face to face with Andy (Wil Wheaton), a charming and charismatic guy. He offers David his much-needed company, compassion, and friendship.
The story takes a turn, when through the dating service David meets Lisa (Amy Rutledge), and they form a seemingly genuine connection, bonding over their passion for helping others and mutual loneliness. But when David comes home and tells Andy about his date, Andy turns angry and demanding, and there is no longer even a pretense that this is a pre-recorded conversation.
Review: The writer and first-time director Jon Stevenson does best by not revealing how much of what Andy says comes from the tape or David’s head, and leaves it on the viewers to discern. Moreover, the idea of Andy entering into David’s life and turning David against the people he cares about, is like establishing Andy as some kind of sinister presence. And this definitely is a promising horror-movie concept!
But the story seems to be slightly rushed. As Stevenson jumps right from Andy’s response to David’s date into full-on craziness, and David gets no chance to explore his relationship with Lisa, before Andy turns him against her. Though Stevenson spends so much time on nuances, he couldn’t quite develop the characters, or move the plot along, until late into the movie.
However, Rent-A-Pal has many elements that makes it a great film. From its layered character to it’s awkward and perfectly timed humor, the overall tone of the film is well balanced. At times, it might feel eerie and structured, but you will never quite know when something was going to happen. And ultimately, that manages to keep you guessing and wondering, whether reality is being blurred, or is it something supernatural.
When it comes to performances, Rent-A-Pal features strong performances from its entire cast, especially Wil Wheaton and Brian Landis Folkins. Wil Wheaton delivers the perfect mix of innocent friendliness, passive-aggressive manipulation and direct intimidation. He is essentially acting alone, since Andy only appears on David’s TV. Even Brian Landis Folkins puts on a phenomenal eye-opening performance. His chemistry with his mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), is one that many of us can connect with, on some level. Even the chemistry between David and Lisa (Amy Rutledge) will remind you of how simple things used to be.
However, David’s unraveling is both frightening and saddening. The innocence of David and Andy feels childlike at moments, but both of these characters' connection with loneliness, is what has given way to darkness and danger. What makes the movie work as well as it does, at least up to a point, are the excellently calibrated performances.
Adding to the overall impact are the technical aspects and expert production design, which fully deliver the story's time setting and low-tech VHS aesthetic.
Overall, exploring the implications and outcomes of obsession in relationships, Rent-A-Pal is a well-made 90s time capsule. The film is worth a watch.