Wil Wheaton as Andy
Brian Landis Folkins as David
Amy Rutledge as Lisa
Kathleen Brady as Lucille
Adrian Egolf as Diane
Josh Staan as Camera man
Written, Directed & Edited by Jon Stevenson
With the modern world feeling so bleak, Hollywood has made quite the habit of late of looking to the past to tell its stories, with the era of the ’80s and ’90s being the favorite of storytellers and while Rent-a-Pal tells a very familiar tale, it gives its story a nicely retro twist that elevates it above other similar genre efforts.
Set in 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. But, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.
We’ve frequently seen tales of lonely men with troubled personal lives losing their minds and lashing out in dangerous ways — last year saw one bafflingly gross over $1 billion and garner 11 Oscar nominations — and Jon Stevenson’s Rent-a-Pal definitely touches on a number of tropes for the formula: lives at home, troubled relationship with his mother, problems connecting with the opposite sex, no true ambition for where his life could go. But yet the way that David is written and performed gives him a few extra layers that make him a more fascinating protagonist than most others.
With a runtime of nearly two hours, Stevenson uses the extra time uncharacteristic of many indie thrillers to actually develop his lead and allow audiences to connect to him and his struggles and awkward personality before crumbling the ground out from beneath them and revealing the darker path he will inevitably take. David truly has some interesting things about him, from his beleaguered profession as his dementia-riddled mother’s caretaker to his desire to genuinely connect with anyone not his own family, and once Andy begins taking over parts of his life, there’s a brief time in which viewers actually do feel sad about his downward spiral before we start to lose our sympathy by his actions.
In addition to the well-crafted character study nature of the plot, Stevenson relishes in creating a wholly authentic recreation of the world of lo-fi televisions, VHS rendezvous and synth-heavy musical compositions and with it being made on its indie budget, it’s truly impressively done. Aside from the crisp look of the film itself, there wasn’t a moment in its entire 108 minutes that I found my immersion even mildly broken, fully believing that this was made 30 years ago.
Another major highlight of the film comes in its performances, most notably the scene-stealing turn from the normally-comedic Wil Wheaton, who brilliantly taps into the tonal blend between the film’s darker humor and its more maniacal and chilling nature. Wheaton finds a way to keep his pre-recorded best friend believable in its quirky and bizarre nature while also allowing audiences to believe that his asides into sinister territory may not all be int he mind of David and offers a new side to the character actor that begs for him to return to the horror-thriller genre far more often.
Rent-A-Pal may suffer from some familiarity in its storytelling, but thanks to a wholly believable ’90s atmosphere, skilled direction in Stevenson’s debut, a stellar performance from Wheaton and strong performance from Folkins and thrilling synthesizer score, it sets itself apart from similar genre fare in stylish and chilling fashion.