In a quest to absorb all things 90s nostalgia, I knew I would feel right at home inside the world of writer-director Jon Stevenson’s Rent-A-Pal. A gritty and neon look at isolation, acceptance, and the errant paths the mind wanders when teetering between fantasy and reality.
We begin our journey at Video Rendezvous, through the lens of video dating reels laced with acid washed pageantry against a laser beam background. After a few bouncy side ponytails and a dummy, we land upon David, a suave veneer of “40 years young”. David, an incredibly strong arching role by Brian Landis Folkins, is sensitive, caring and as everyone does, searches for that special forever person.
A jolt of reality shatters David’s preparedness as he must recite his endearing self-endorsement again with disastrous results. In ways, there is a bit of David in all of us, misunderstood, only good on paper or sketched out beforehand, shouldered with an unseen albatross. For David, this weight takes the form of his Dementia-ridden mother, Lucille, played beautifully by the magnificent Kathleen Brady.
David’s caretaker position seems dejected at the start. That hinge of duty and resentment. The very good boy and the ball and chain. David is meticulous in his care of Lucille, her schedule, her eating habits. He is patient and kind. And frustrated and lonely. A call from Video Rendezvous sends David rocketing towards the station on the tip on a possible match. When that match turns, star-crossed David sorts through the old tapes, setting sight on Rent-A-Pal. The jovial gent on the cover, Andy, played by a manically proficient Wil Wheaton, promises to be the best of forever friends. David’s forever could come sooner than he wished.
Once David pops the video in the recorder, things take a hard left, in the best way. Andy, an inviting, tender-voiced man in a chair with a quaint side-table seems more than eager to take on a new friendship, going through the motions of the probing questions one asks when trying to breakthrough the walls of someone. Andy is moved to leave space for David to answer. As he does, quickly and dismissively at first and then more thoughtfully as he plays the tape over and over, anticipating Andy’s questions which now seem to change form. Something else begins to morph as well, Andy’s expressions and life stories. One such story puts David in quite an indelicate situation culminating with the scolding of his mother, who thinks he is his father. Mixing her tirade with the background laughter of Andy on tape sends David to a breaking point, terrifying his mother. And David ends up back in the caregiver position once again.
Andy and David make a BFF pact for the ages with David playing and rewinding his way to a canned friendship. David begins to depend more and more on Andy, for moral support, for a dirty joke and even a spirited game of Go Fish. All this one-sided camaraderie takes a downward spiral as our missed Video Rendezvous from the top of the movie reaches out for another shot with David. David can’t help but follow through on his date with the perfect woman. A trained caregiver in her own right, Lisa, played deftly by Amy Rutledge, ticks all of David’s boxes and then some. Their dating montage is the stuff of 90s rom-com movie magic is made of, filled with roller skating rinks, long glances, and slow dances. At last, for David, its seems his search is over. In a quick “back to my place” scenario David and Lisa begin the slow decent into naughtiness while an aggressively upset Andy looks on.
How could David choose a woman over the friendship he’s tried so hard to cultivate from his comfy chair? Wheaton spoke about Andy’s detached social behavior, “a brokenness you just can’t fix with a reach so deep into David, he has no choice but to make this relationship work no matter what’s at stake.” David is caught between satisfying Andy and living the life he dreams of. Untethered by his sick mother and into the arms of an accepting love. David’s sanity ebbs and flows from absolute desperation to admonishment. Everything is standing in his way to be the man he wants to be, and Andy has shown him the light. Or has Andy done nothing at all.
Throughout the film we bounce between whether David is under the influence of an ominous video presence or if David’s mind is so shattered, he’ll project anything onto anyone as a means of escape. When we spoke to Director Jon Stevenson, Wil Wheaton and Brian Landis Folkins regarding the framework for Rent-A-Pal, loneliness and an “incredible sense of wanting to belong envelopes all of us”, said Folkins. From personal stories of traumatic childhood experiences to finding and residing in dark mental spaces as adults, we never truly grow out of wanting to be validated, loved or appreciated. Stevenson creates a world where isolation and dark places can have us searching for any form of light, where acceptance of any kind changes our view to those we want to belong to, eroding our own choice and moral compass. For David, this arc seems inevitable as the sweet candy coating in the intro slowly peels away. At a runtime of 108 minutes, there are places that stayed a bit too long, though as the movie peels away the layers, the uncomfortable moments make a lot of sense.
This film is great psychological horror that proves a change in attitude can be as simple as pressing play.
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