Watching Rent-A-Pal – a psychological horror regarding video dating and friendship set in 1990 – during our current isolation wasn’t what writer/director Jon Stevenson had in mind, seeing how it’s been three years from writing to release. As Stevenson tells it in a recent roundtable interview, “I had fallen into this depression and anxiety… and one day, I came across ‘Rent-A-Friend’… the idea was that you would just rent a friend. You would bring this VHS tape home and talk to this guy on tape – it was a one-way conversation – but for the ‘80s, it was interactive.”
Right now, that’s not too far from how we are, staring at screens and our social media networks for some kind of connection or kinship, reaching out to anyone who’ll hopefully hear us. Of course, the subject of Rent-A-Pal has a different circumstance, being the primary caregiver for his dementia-stricken mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), but the concept still applies. Unable to find or keep any close friendships, David (Brian Landis Folkins) turns to matchmaking service Video Rendezvous to put himself out there, not having the time to go to bars or meet people normally.
For those of you who didn’t grow up in the ‘80s or ‘90s (or if you didn’t see Cameron Crowe’s Singles), these videos were the live-action equivalent of the grade school pictures you sat for in your best outfit against the cloud-blue/white background. You sat down, gave your best smile, and then introduced yourself as you wanted whether through simple words or actions, or via bluescreened inserts of you wildin’ out and being crazy. David’s established as a regular subscriber, hoping to match with one of the eligible women he sees on the tapes he picks up from the Video Rendezvous office.
His most recent visit – which includes two takes of a hastily ad-libbed and shoddily-directed self-introduction which makes him look absolutely scatterbrained – also brings a “Rent-A-Pal” videotape to his attention. Based on the “Rent-A-Friend” concept above (the entire original videotape can be viewed here, FBI warning and all – https://youtu.be/DMi86xNrPpU), this “Rent-A-Pal” tape features the cordial, sincere tones and reliable countenance of Wil Wheaton as our new “pal” Andy. It’s an awkward transition while Andy’s one-sided conversation turns into a proper dyad through David learning to tell stories in the dead space between Andy’s “uh-huh”s and replies, but Wheaton lends Andy his reliable, giving presence which calms us just as much as David.
The eventual interplay between Folkins and Wheaton is a treat, especially with Stevenson’s script and editing perfectly emulating the best of hangout montages from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Swingers, and other such comedies. We’re used to seeing sequences of brochachos drinking and laughing; this time around, Stevenson turns this trope on its ear by having it be totally disconnected. David’s raising toasts and playing cards with an image on a TV screen, timing his replies to Andy’s jibes and preplanning card hands to match the video. Intimate details about David’s life are passed along for us to hear and for Andy to pretend to hear, nodding in understanding without understanding. “Between our isolation and David’s isolation and relationship with screens – in quarantine, we were all glued to the screens in a variety of different ways and a variety of different devices – I don’t think it’s different from David in the late ‘80s finding a kinship with a screen,” Stevenson says.
The appearance of friendship – not friendship itself – has made its home in David, and the subversion Stevenson brings by disguising his dependence on Andy as “friendship” in these moments has a perverse, yet oddly allowable humor in that we know it’s not friendship. But you can’t fault David for having a good time and for feeling better about life; he’s got a spring in his step and he’s able to deal with Lucille with a lighter, less frustrated touch. And things keep getting better, as he’s just been matched with the beautiful and charming Lisa (Amy Rutledge), who’s also a caregiver, coincidentally. Gentle, funny, and smart – she’s perfect, and Rutledge plays her with a heartaching sweetness which leaps off the screen. Lisa’s open and free of manipulation and disguises, which David experiences too much of due to Lucille’s sickness transforming her into someone else and through darker moments with Andy.
Anyone savvy will know this is an appropriate moment for things to start going sideways, sparking our doubt as to how much of Andy’s portions of the conversation are real or in David’s head. Some of the cryptic late-game interactions truly make us question David’s sanity, such as an unplanned and frank discussion about sex resulting in a very uncomfortable outcome for all involved. A horrifying set of events also sheds light on Andy’s real nature, which Wheaton describes as an “abusive boyfriend”; “If we accept that Andy is an actual person, and that the relationship between Andy and David is real, what’s driving (Andy) is his fear of loneliness… he’s actually saying ‘I’m gonna bring you into my world and I’m not gonna let you go.’”
Rent-A-Pal seems a timely reflection of our own reaching out for a hand without a clue if that hand is genuine in its offer of friendship or attached to a sinister body. Without confirmation either way, we’re willing to mold ourselves to the other if it provides us some semblance of affection or companionship, and the horrors of David’s psyche are extracted well through Folkins’ anxious mannerisms, especially in concert with Wheaton’s confidence and projected compassion. Rutledge gives Lisa a lovely presence in the film as the sole light in the dark abyss which is David’s life, unknowingly becoming the final factor in this Kubrickian three-way competition for David’s soul while Andy tightens his grasp on David (and David’s diminishing sanity).
Most importantly, the feeling of isolation – in which we often feel like we’re at the bottom of a crevasse with no rope to help us climb out – and ever-worsening circumstances compounding our solitude is all-too accurately depicted and felt, anchored by solid photography by Scott Park which defines both the physical and mental confines restricting David’s every move. The small space of his basement room isn’t too far a metaphor for how much David has to look forward to, and Park makes sure to highlight and contrast David’s claustrophobic settings with a more wide open feel when Lisa enters the picture. In this regard, she feels every bit a gift in David’s life, and the film lifts its tension off its shoulders, finally breathing comfortably for the precious time she’s on screen.
It’s an outstanding film which defies expectations and assumption, thanks to Stevenson’s direction, script, and the talent he’s amassed. From out of nowhere roars Rent-A-Pal with all the fury and vengeance of a supernatural-based thriller; that it involves none of the otherworldly makes it hit closer to home, playing on our own perceptions and impulses. Few are the films where form, content, function, style, and intent are all working as one; Jon Stevenson has made it happen with a script pulled from his own battles with loneliness and turned it into a living, breathing work of art.