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RENT-A-PAL (2020) review

September 11, 2020



written by: Jon Stevenson 
produced by: Annie Baker, Brian Landis Folkins, Brandon Fryman, Robert B. Martin, Jon Stevenson & Jimmy Weber 
directed by: Jon Stevenson
rated: not rated
runtime: 108 min. 
U.S. release date: September 11, 2020 (virtual cinema) 


It’s strange that a story set in 1990 seems oddly relevant to life as we know it in 2020, but such is life in a pandemic, when lonely people searching for companionship tend to feel even more isolated. How far into madness can isolation drive a person though? Writer/director Jon Stevenson explores such a descent with “Rent-A-Pal”, his slow-cooker of a thriller which finds a man wrestling with well-intended family duties and a need to connect with a kindred soul and how a strange VHS tape slowly twists it all. The film benefits from spot-on pacing and a solid cast that intuitively inhabit characters who would likely be overlooked in real life, while balancing an unsuspecting tenderness and a simmering insanity.

David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a lonely 40-year-old Denver bachelor living in his mother’s basement. While that may sound stereotypically pathetic and sad, he’s there because she has progressive dementia that requires constant care. His mother, Lucille (Kathleen Brady), may not always remember her son – often mistaking him for her husband Frank, David’s jazz pianist father who died years ago – but he nevertheless feels a sense of fulfillment in the company and assistance he provides.



Still, there’s a nagging loneliness that has caused David to become a member of a local dating company called Video Rendezvous, which provides VHS tapes for a fee with potential matches for the customer. Imagine a Blockbuster or Family Video that solely rents out tapes with potential dates (and/or mates), only this one has a overly pleasant albeit detached receptionist (a delightfully annoying Adrian Egolf) who hands out curated tapes to take home and view equally lonely and awkward singles from all over the nation. 

David stumbles upon a tape labeled “Rent-A-Pal” in a clearance bin next to the front desk one day, after screwing up his profile video shoot. Frustrated with himself and desperate for friendship, David takes home the tape and after pressing “play” he’s introduced to Andy (Wil Wheaton), a sweater vest-wearing bearded charmer who sits in a comfortable in front of a camera, offering pre-recorded conversation that offers David the listening ear and connection he so desires. It’s understandably weird for David at first, but he gradually gets pulled into Andy’s blue-hued spell of initial niceness, which becomes a warped escape from his dull reality.  

When he gets a call from Video Rendezvous informing him that another member is requesting a “match up” after watching David’s intro video, the recluse snaps out of it and rushes to take the next step in the company’s courtship process. This is how he meets Lisa (a sweet and engaging Amy Rutledge), a kind-hearted woman who works nearby as a hospice nurse, and seems like a perfect fit for David, considering his circumstances. They go on what feels like a too-good-to-be-true first date at a skating rink where she gets him to relax and open up like we assume no one else has been able to in the past.

With the date ending on a high note, David is elated and races back to his Andy tape to let his good friend know about his wonderful evening. However, the way in which Andy responds to David’s excitement isn’t exactly how a real best pal should respond and soon enough the poor guy’s fragile ego gets sucked into a dark vortex that prevents him from pursuing happiness with Lisa and an unfortunate downward spiral that feeds into David’s insecurity, anger and rage that simmers underneath.



Stevenson successfully commits to some uncanny world-building with “Rent-A-Pal”, that establishes and then develops just the right tone of intrigue and unease, even when we’re simply getting to know a seemingly harmless albeit lonely sad sack. The camera work by Scott Park and score from co-producer Jimmy Weber carefully work together to guide us through the quaint home of David and his mother, establishing the parameters of the protagonist’s lonely while indicating there is reason to believe that something could be off at any moment. Thankfully, there’s no jolting scares here nor is there anything overtly predictable about how it all plays out in the second half of the story. 

That’s primarily due to this Andy tape. Like something out of a bizarre “Twilight Zone” episode, the concept of how this videocassette successfully influences David is a credit to Wheaton, the script he has to work with and some sharp editing by Stevenson. The fact that Wheaton gradually shows a wide range here – going from congenial to jealous – is an impressive feat, considering the actor never interacts with another actor in-person, but the way in which Andy’s recordings can be related to David’s mental and emotional states in different ways is a credit to how Stevenson frames his story. With his pauses and open-ending answers, it sure feels like Andy is actually listening and responding to David’s words. Is it all in David’s head though or is something supernatural afoot here? Stevenson doesn’t push it one way or the other, because the focus is smartly on how it’s all impacting David’s psyche. 

Just like David gets sucked into Andy’s presence, it’s easy to get sucked into “Rent-A-Pal” and its examination on the toll of care-taking and the susceptibility of a delicate mental state. The highlight of the film is that date, where Folkins and Rutledge offer up some genuine chemistry which finds viewers happy for both their characters. The overall compelling part of the film is how we wind up wondering where and how far Stevenson is going to go with Wheaton’s Andy and eventually the end is more of an exhalation than a conclusion, which is a compliment. 




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