The video dating era of the late eighties and early nineties; pre-dating apps, pre-Match.com, and long before the phrase “swipe right” became an easy way to find a companion. It was a time when companies would hire a cameraman to record your video profile and you would go home and wait in the hope that the agency would find you a proper match. Those were the days. Or were they?
In writer/director Jon Stevenson’s new horror/thriller, “Rent-A-Pal,” it seems as though the loneliness of waiting and wondering if a match will be found, coupled with the humiliation of having to do something like this at all can drive some people insane.
Set in the early aforementionned nineties Stevenson’s film stars an excellent Brian Landis Folkins as David, a lonely man who lives with and takes care of his mentally ailing mother. His life is a series of bland routines. He wakes up, feeds and bathes his mother, checks the dating service (never any luck), feeds his mother, watches tv and old films that will keep his mother occupied, makes dinner for them both, gives his mother her nightly bath, puts her to bed, all to be repeated day after mundane day.
David’s only time to himself is late at night when the house is quiet, and his mom is fast asleep. He sits in the kitchen and sips whiskey that he keeps hidden. He has no friends to speak of. The silence is David’s only companion and it doesn’t come to visit as often as he would like.
It is a noble task David has taken on, being his mother’s twenty four-hour caregiver but it is starting to take an emotional toll, as he is beginning to realize that many life experiences that are passing him by. With no friends, no romantic partner, and all but no time to himself, resentment is beginning to set in and (even though she can’t help it) his mother’s constant demands and vulgar outbursts are making him bitter.
Checking in at the dating service one day, David finds a VHS tape called “Rent-A-Pal.” Director Stevenson said he saw one in the eighties called “Rent-A-Friend” and this gave him his idea for the film. It was an interactive one-way conversation videotape where the person would speak and ask questions and react to questions and statements most viewers would be making.
The premise may have been bizarre in the eighties, but it was quite prophetic. 2020’s modern world finds us having deeper relationships with our phones and computers than we do with actual humanity. Deeper human connection is becoming all the rarer.
David plays the videotape and the man on the screen (a wonderfully strange Wil Wheaton) begins to introduce himself. His name is Andy and he wears a nice sweater and a welcoming demeanor. He asks questions and waits patiently for answers, always smiling, warm and attentive.
Andy gets close to the camera, pretending to look around David’s living quarters and says cordial phrases such as “Nice digs!” His compliments flatter and his questions are never invasive. This seems to be a enjoyable guy. He listens. He is funny and understanding. For some people who are too internal, perhaps this is all the validation they would need. Andy is not actually there but he IS speaking to David. His jovial personality cuts through the fog of social isolation and he makes good on the promise to always be there for him. For David, this is his one and only connection. It works for him. He has found a friend in Andy.
However, once Andy reveals childhood abuse, David can relate, and it brings up memories of just who his mother really was and how she disciplined him as a young boy. We see the mental switches flipping inside David after this revelation/realization.
Things seem to perk up after David receives a call from Lisa (a sweet Amy Rutledge). Lisa saw his tape and hopes they will be a good match. She is a professional caregiver and understands David’s situation. As she helps him with his mother, David and Lisa recognize a kinship and slowly fall for one another.
However, Andy becomes resentful that David has found a girl and fears she will come in between their friendship. He has a spiteful and ugly side to his personality. David even cancels a second date with Lisa to stay home and make Andy feel better. Andy’s jealousy becomes dangerous.
It is in David’s confused theater of the unreal where Stevenson has fun with his film. Of course the tape doesn’t actually say all of these things. But David sees and hears it. He has never had any real friends nor girlfriends and now he is confronted with both at the same time. He does not know how to divide his time equally and wants to give both the proper amount of attention and love.
That is the fun the filmmaker is having with his character and his audience. There is no Andy! It is an actor on a videotape, but we are tricked into being perplexed at how David will be able to spread his heart and time between his new girlfriend and his non-existent best friend. This is a Soap Opera in the grey areas of David’s mind.
While watching David become untethered from reality is unsettling, it is Andy who becomes the most chilling. In his sweater-clad, pleasant Mister Rogers demeanor, Andy is quite eerie and the extreme close-ups of his face (smiling at us through the fuzzy grains of the television) are unsettling.
It is in the presentation of Andy and the interactions between David and his video buddy where the film grounds itself. Watching David and Andy becoming friends can be fascinating. A lesser filmmaker would have resorted to trickery by having Andy appear in David’s house, but Stevenson keeps him where he belongs, on the screen. After all, he is not real. The result is bone-chilling.
The film’s only roadblock comes in its desire to kowtow to genre fans. Stevenson’s film collapses into a blood-splattered finale that is certainly no surprise but feels disrespectful to the screenplay’s inventive first half. It’s as if the director ran out of ideas and took too easy a way out.
That said, Stevenson’s film is effective. Its theme of isolation and desire for connection plays very well in 2020’s COVID-19 world and this is certainly an age where so many are falling prey to the false realities of internet connections.
“Rent-A-Pal” is a patient and suspenseful film that creatively examines the destructive impulses of self-pity and the devastating effects of too much isolation. I like this film very much.