IFC Midnight and director Jon Stevenson highlight the dark side of alienation in Rent-A-Pal. Set in the year 1990, a lonely bachelor named David (Brian Landis Folkins) searches for an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of caring for his aging mother (Kathleen Brady). While seeking a partner through a video dating service, he discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal.
Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape offers him much-needed company, compassion, and friendship. Naturally, Andy ends up meeting Mrs. Right in the form of Lisa (Amy Rutledge), who then threatens his friendship with Andy. David soon learns that some friendships come at a cost, and he desperately struggles to afford admission.
Before there were online dating services and dating apps, singles who weren’t into the nightclub scene utilized video dating services to find a potential mate. That angle alone was enough to pique my interest in Rent-A-Pal. Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I can remember seeing those TV commercials for the services.
Watching David go through the struggles of looking for love was very relatable. Director Jon Stevenson made a wise choice in utilizing an unknown for our lead with actor Brian Landis Folkins. Watching David’s commitment and frustration of being a caregiver to a mother whose mind is slowly going away is the perfect set up for the character. David is, without a doubt, someone who would be a victim of bullying and is well, a bit weird. Yet, in his performance, Brian Landis Folkins allows us to sympathize with David.
Will Wheaton, on the other hand, is a revelation as Andy, David’s Rent-A-Pal. Since escaping the stigma of being associated with the Star Trek franchise, Wheaton’s resume includes voice-over work and a hilarious Meta version of himself on the show The Big Bang Theory. Wheaton entirely escapes into the role of Andy, showcasing charisma and friendliness. The director makes the wise choice to only showcase Wheaton as David sees him, on a TV screen. This adds to the creepiness of the storyline.
Primarily the film belongs to Andy and David; however, I did enjoy the director’s introduction of Amy Rutledge’s character Lisa in the film’s third act. As we watch the movie, we know that Lisa is right for David, and generally want to see them together. However, given that Rent-A-Pal is a thriller, we know their happy ending will most likely not happen.
In his feature debut as a writer and director, Jon Stevenson shows promise. Not only does he successfully nail the look and atmosphere of 1990, but he also avoids typical horror clichés. Stevenson avoids making Andy a supernatural entity or possibly having Andy as a figment of David’s imagination, which he easily could’ve done. However, if there was one issue I had with the film, it is the lack of 1990 Meta references, as I am a pop culture junkie.
I advise viewers not to go expecting a high body count or jump scares. Rent –A-Pal isn’t a traditional horror or thriller by any means. The film is very character-driven and slow-burning, but the angle is all part of Stevenson’s storytelling. Rent –A-Pal succeeds in showing us just how much loneliness can affect one’s mind and how we can sometimes go a little mad.
Final Grade A –
Rent –A-Pal is available on streaming platforms now.