Brian Landis Folkins looks so broken in “Rent-A-Pal” it’s a wonder he’s actually in one piece. His body sags and his face sinks, eyes sulking under a pair of glasses. He’s playing David, who’s somewhat of a loner. For a long while, all you really know about David is that he lives with his mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), who has dementia. Also, he likes VHS. Every night he plops himself on the couch to watch the latest from Video Rendezvous, a video dating service in which potential matches communicate via VHS cassettes–think Tinder but in 1990. When he doesn’t get any matches, David turns to a new tape called Rent-a-Pal.
So what exactly is “Rent-A-Pal?” It’s what is described above—two straight hours of Folkins watching TV. It’s a riff (or a complete rip-off) of “Videodrome,” down to David’s attempt to enter his television screen by putting his face against the glass. It’s an ’80s callback sprinkled with the broadest, most obvious criticisms about technology and a series of hit-or-miss jokes. It’s a movie that wants us to contemplate the emptiness of our culture when really, it’s offering a prime example of it.
“Rent-A-Pal” is dressed with the kind of accessories that trick you into thinking there’s something more meaningful here: showy cinematography, bursts of music, an actor who physically embodies the role of “outcast.” But this is all a facade, window dressing to distract you from the story being paper thin and told with the nuance of a self-help book.
Speaking of self-help books, David finds the help he needs in Rent-A-Pal. On the tape is Andy (Wil Wheaton), who promises they are going to be friends. Designed to simulate real interaction, Andy offers advice and comfort while pausing to let David respond to the screen. The two drink and play cards. They “talk” about growing up in Denver. And it’s unsettling to watch David interact with Andy, especially when it becomes his daily routine.
Meanwhile, David finds human interaction when he matches with a caregiver named Lisa (Amy Rutledge). With glasses, curly hair, and an adorable smile, Rutledge nails the aura of a hospice worker, someone who is genuinely sweet and wants to help. She’s perfect for David, which means the two hit it off at the skating rink, then make plans for the next night. When David returns home to tell his pal all about it, Andy seems jealous. As you can probably guess, all of this is leading to the realization that Andy is much more than just a VHS tape.
‘Rent-A-Pal” is the directorial debut from actor Jon Stevens, and he makes a rookie mistake confusing “dark” for “deep,” eventually making David the saddest punching bag since Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Bad stuff happens, day in, day out. He rolls with the punches until Andy convinces him to rebel in a violent, excruciatingly misconstrued final act.
The story is predicated in part on the level of trust involved in communicating with people online you have never met. Yet as the film becomes more of a conventional horror flick, it also leaves unexplored the darker realities of these contemporary fears for easier, gorier thrills. Stevenson would have been better off setting things in modern times, replacing the videotape with a friendship on Twitter, Snapchat, or an OnlyFans account. As it stands, though, the real disconnect is not between David and Andy, but between director and audience. [C-]
“Rent-A-Pal” is in select theaters and VOD now.