Movie Review: Rent-A-Pal

September 11, 2020

Written by Joseph Perry

Joseph Perry is the Film Festival Editor for Horror Fuel; all film festival related queries and announcements should be sent to him at [email protected] He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Gruesome Magazine, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.

A lonely bachelor resigned to being the full-time caretaker for his ailing mother becomes increasingly obsessed by a videotape in writer/director Jon Stevenson’s Rent-A-Pal, an unsettling character study that builds into a full-on thriller in its third act. Wonderfully acted and gripping throughout, Stevenson’s directorial debut is a chilling watch.

Set in 1990, Rent-A-Pal stars Brian Landis Folkins as David, a 40-year-old man who lives with his elderly, verbally abusive mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), who suffers from dementia. With no real outside contact, he seeks a romantic relationship through a video dating service that has questionable practices. One day at the service’s offices, he impulse purchases a videotape called “Rent-A-Pal,” and begins to connect with the character named Andy (Wil Wheaton in a creepy performance), who asks for personal information, suggests drinks and card games, and slowly becomes a heavily influential part of David’s lonely life. 

Enter Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a fellow caregiver who matches through the dating service with David. It is clear from their first date that they could make a good couple, but this budding relationship doesn’t seem to sit well with Andy. The perceived jealousy on Andy’s part sets the wheels in motion for David to become even more confused and unhinged, leading to a belter of a disturbing third act.

The brilliance about the man-and-technology relationship in Rent-A-Pal is that, unlike other films where such a character would change what it does or says to become a sinister force, Andy repeats the same things, and it seems that it is David who reads more into Andy’s dialogue. Wheaton is dynamite in the role of an actor pretending to talk to someone, leaving pauses for their answers. His initially overly cheerful and deliberately corny delivery starts getting stranger and more intense, and Wheaton nails every subtle nuance.

Folkins is terrific as the lonely David, desperate for human connection as he lives the cliched life of an adult basement dweller in his mother’s home. Folkins performs masterfully as his character goes from a sympathetic character to someone whose mental illness leads him toward dangerous decisions. Rutledge shines in her role, as well, as the calm voice of reason who brings hope and meaning to David’s life — as long as, it seems, Andy will allow it.

Stevenson paces Rent-A-Pal superbly (though some may find it a slow burn), allowing viewers to feel for David’s lot in life — some of the character’s back story is told in his answers to Andy on the videotape — and pulling for him when he meets Lisa, before kicking things into full-blown thriller territory. There is dark humor throughout, and Stevenson balances those moments nicely with the drama and chills. 

Highly recommended, Rent-A-Pal, from IFC Midnight, is available  in select theaters, and on Digital and Cable VOD from September 11

 

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