Review: Obscure 'Rent-A-Pal' a deep, disturbing, dive into loneliness
Courtesy of IFC Films
Before Tinder, E harmony, and Bumble soaked up the airwaves of online dating in the 21st century, and, well, before the internet was really hip and cool, people subscribed to a different service altogether: VHS tapes. You would pay a company, in the case of this film its “Video Rendezvous,” who would record you in their studio for about 30 seconds (longer if you were a girl, because it’s mostly guys) to make your plea, on camera, to someone on the other end. Then, like a casting call, your tape got sent out to other members of the service and if they liked what they saw, you’d get a ring from the company receptionist and BAM! Instant connection.
Aren’t you glad we have cell phones?
Jon Stevenson’s disturbing “Rent-A-Pal” is a unique character study of loneliness and insecurity. Tapping into the culture zeitgeist of human connection with technology. It just looked a lot different in 1990, when Siri or Alexa weren’t around to answer our questions 24/7. Granted, I was born in 1995 but that’s beside the point.
So goes the story of David (Brian Landis Folkins) a loner who is the primary caregiver for his dementia riddled mother (Kathleen Brady) and spends most of his spare time rummaging through the curated lineup of girls from his video dating service. He’s been at it six months with no luck and on a whim decides to record a fresh tape for his potential suitors. It’s on that trip he discovers, in the bargain bin no less, a Rent-A-Pal VHS tape with the energetic Andy (Will Wheaton) sporting a Mr. Rogers sweater and bow-tie on the cover with the tagline: “He talks to you. He listens to you. He Understands You.”
The tape is filled with plenty of vague, pre-recorded conversation starters asking about life, love, and childhood, leaving pauses in between to allow the viewer to answer. (I found it ironic that, when he asks about a girlfriend, he assumes the viewer has none). What starts as a drunken indulgence for David, quickly turns into an obsession. You’d think the rewatchability of Rent-A-Pal would dwindle fast (how often can one play Go Fish when the outcome is the same every time), but David forms a bond with Andy, watching the tape on a continuous loop in the hopes of fostering a deep intertwined connection. Major props to Wheaton who literally is speaking to a camera, interacting with nobody, delivering one of the creepiest figures of 2020.
It’s a tragic and disturbing tale of a man in search of companionship and meaning. He lost his father ten years prior and in late night sessions with good ole’ Andy, we learn his mother abused him as a child. But even when he makes a connection through his dating service with Lisa (Amy Rutledge) a smart, warmhearted nurse for Hospice, he’s afraid of losing Andy.
Stevenson doesn’t lose sight on his commentary with mental illness and its relation to technology. We’re all addicted to our phones, and yearn for someone to love us, but at what cost? Folkins is a powerhouse, yielding a tough display of emotions ranging from fear, despair, and straight up gonzo. Over the course of 108 minutes, we watch as David’s mental state bounces around in a show of cringeworthy presentations.
As a first time feature director and writer, Stevenson - who also edited the picture - knows how to place a shot, and create good, solid, atmospheric tension, despite the ending not quite sticking the landing. It’s a suitable conclusion, but it comes so fast and out of left field, it becomes a bit overzealous and unrealistic. Nevertheless, the character of Frank is an ever fascinating puzzle and Stevenson has a blast unspooling his subconscious.
Some assembly may be required.
RENT-A-PAL will be available on VOD starting Friday September 11th.