RENT-A-PAL (2020)


Studio:      IFC Midnight
Director:    Jon Stevenson
Writer:      Jon Stevenson
Producer:  Annie Elizabeth Baker, Jimmy Weber, Jon Stevenson, Brian Landis Folkins, Brandon Fryman, Robert B. Martin Jr.
Stars:     Brian Landis Folkins, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge, Wil Wheaton

Review Score:



A new romance starts turning around a man¡¯s lonely life of caring for his elderly mother until an unusual videotape influences him in unexpected ways.



Hi pal! Thanks for stopping by. It¡¯s always great to see you! How¡¯s your day been going so far? You don¡¯t say. I bet I know why you¡¯re here. It¡¯s about ¡°Rent-a-Pal,¡± isn¡¯t it? Am I right? Heh, I thought so! Well then let¡¯s cut to the chase and get right into it, yeah? Okay!

¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± takes place in 1990. What¡¯s great about this particular throwback timeframe is that the film isn¡¯t overly obnoxious about it.

Don¡¯t you hate how 21st-century movies set in the ¡®80s always make it look like every single person had a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle back then? Me too. Or when they jam old logos, fashion, and pop culture in your face like you can¡¯t remember what year it¡¯s supposed to be unless Max Headroom pops up next to a Tab can or vintage Doritos bag somewhere?

Don¡¯t worry. ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± doesn¡¯t get ridiculously insane with wardrobe or set dressing that way. There¡¯ll be a classic Pepsi can fuzzed in the foreground or the telltale dots of a Wonder Bread bag. One guy wears a Reagan/Bush t-shirt too. But no one ever does a ¡°Wayne¡¯s World¡± wink like they¡¯re preening a piece of product placement for the camera. ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± just sort of lets you be there in a retro world without feeling any urge to depict a bloated parody of the era.

Quick details are one of the film¡¯s strengths. Like, when a videocassette goes into a VCR at one point, we briefly see a tape with a handwritten label already in the player that has to be removed first. Now, that doesn¡¯t sound like a big deal because it isn¡¯t. That¡¯s the point. See, the easy thing to do when filming that scene would be to simply have a hand put the tape in an empty player, or not even include that shot at all. Yet that one-second clip of the previous cassette hits an ¡°I remember homemade labels!¡± touchstone that continues selling the setting to your subconscious.

Editing and audio design put in the work to make the movie casually immersive. ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± will cut to close-ups of tape heads spinning while warbling audio mixes with the synthesized score to suggest an appropriately off-kilter mood. This isn¡¯t plainly pointing a camera and recording straightforward actions. ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± builds a tonal texture out of every deceptively minute piece, which is how a movie forms a fantasy capable of wrapping around you, maybe without even noticing it, instead of being a window that merely makes you a distanced voyeur.

I mean, ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡¯s¡± technical execution isn¡¯t going to wow you the way a ¡°Star Wars¡± blockbuster would. As a dark drama blended with bits of a cerebral chiller, it¡¯s obviously not full of breathtaking spectacle. But some of its success comes from not consciously realizing you¡¯ve fallen under the film¡¯s subtle spell, and that¡¯s due to how craftily everything adds up to weave atmosphere.

Oh! Look at me rambling on without summarizing the setup first. Sorry about that!

So there¡¯s this guy named David. He¡¯s 40. Glasses. Belly. Lives in his mother¡¯s basement. You know this type of lonely loser, right? Except you kind of do and you also kind of don¡¯t.

¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± doesn¡¯t make a big deal about turning David into a sympathetic sad sack whose every action should be accompanied by a ¡®womp womp¡¯ trumpet. Burdened with tending to his housebound mother Lucille, who has dementia, David mostly goes about home care chores with a sense of duty made only moderately moldy by despair. We see David slump his shoulders with exasperated disappointment upon discovering mom left a washcloth to burn on the stove. But he doesn¡¯t conspicuously whine about it. He cleans and comforts Lucille first and then returns to the mess. The camera doesn¡¯t even show David¡¯s face while he wipes up charred rag remnants because his reaction isn¡¯t important. This is just David¡¯s ordinary life of regular routine.

Anyway, David is desperate to find romance through a video dating service. Being a pudgy schlub who lives with his mother, guess how well that goes? You¡¯re right. Not well at all. Only Charlie Brown receives more rejections on Valentine¡¯s Day.

David doesn¡¯t find a woman but he does find Andy. Who¡¯s Andy? He¡¯s the host of a peculiar videocassette called, well, you know what the movie¡¯s title is.

Andy speaks to viewers as though he is right in the room with them. He uses vague phrasing to ask open-ended questions. Then he pauses and nods before responding with enthusiastic encouragement. Andy also offers his own anecdotes and even pretends to play an interactive game of Go Fish.

David knows how goofy the whole idea is. After a cocktail loosens him up though, he decides to give it a go. Before long, David¡¯s ¡°oh, what the hell¡± bemusement evolves into a peculiar bond. Watching the tape over and over again offers David the escape and companionship he craves. Andy may be imaginary, but he becomes David¡¯s best friend.

Now, what you¡¯re probably thinking is that the guy on the tape must eventually start speaking directly to David. That¡¯s what always happens in these things, right? Whether it¡¯s supernatural magic or the byproduct of a broken mind, the prerecorded person comes to life through the screen somehow? Nah, that¡¯s not exactly what happens in ¡°Rent-a-Pal.¡±

Whenever David watches the tape, the footage more or less stays the same. It appears to us like it could be changing or adding new material that wasn¡¯t there last time. That¡¯s partly because the film is cleverly edited to only show us clips of Andy relevant to David¡¯s current conversation. What actually happens is David learns Andy¡¯s dialogue by heart and then acts almost like he¡¯s a participant in a rehearsed play. Knowing what Andy will say next, David gives queued responses that allow him to further the interactive illusion of Andy being real.

Andy doesn¡¯t pose an overly worrisome problem until David meets Lisa. Practically a gender-swapped version of David, Lisa¡¯s awkwardly mousy nature and career as a hospice caregiver make her an ideal match for the man.

Amy Rutledge couldn¡¯t be better as Lisa. Like everything else about the movie, she nails nuance by being socially shy yet affectively endearing without coming off like a ¡®girl next door in glasses¡¯ caricature.

Brian Landis Folkins makes a big mark as David too. David¡¯s behavior occasionally tiptoes into off-putting moments that hint at uncomfortable aspects lurking in his character. But Folkins understands to pull back so even when we see a possibly unpleasant side, David still seems like a down-on-his-luck guy with a good heart who could really use a break. I can¡¯t remember the last time I rooted this much to see things work out for a fictional film character. Cute chemistry between these two actors completes the couple¡¯s fumbling sweetness.

Based on what¡¯s been described so far, ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± probably sounds like a relatively grounded character study, doesn¡¯t it? You¡¯re wondering, ¡°isn¡¯t this supposed to be a thriller?¡±

Well, you¡¯re not wrong to have either thought cross your mind. For the most part, ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± plays more like a drama than anything else. Brief bits of humor poke with black comedy on and off. Some of the gags go for that fidgety kind of funny like Stephen Merchant does on his shows. It¡¯s always intentionally undersold though, increasing ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡¯s¡± quirkiness instead of trying to be laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Since ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± spends most of its time treading in these typical territories, when it finally does swing into macabre matters, the switch feels like a sudden shock even though the movie quietly conditions us for horror all along. While we say ¡°awww¡± out loud in commiseration with David¡¯s setbacks, or softly snort at something silly, ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± paints a portrait of a sad person teetering between depression and darkness. You start seeing David as a potential killer years before committing his first murder. If he gets the right nudge into normalcy from Lisa, it might bring him back before going over that edge. The trouble is, Andy¡¯s influence might not allow that to happen.

Essentially talking to no one in particular, Wil Wheaton does what only Wil Wheaton can as Andy. Wheaton comes with that genuine geek charm that makes him the perfect virtual buddy, particularly to someone describable as an introverted nerd. He¡¯s also capable of quickly flipping his friendly demeanor, alternately dispensing disappointment and humiliation to keep David under cult-like mind control.

As much as I appreciate the little things the movie does, one hour and 48 minutes is a long runtime considering how compact the story is. ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡± could use a tightening trim to inconsequential inserts so its turn into terror hits even harder. That might be my only meaningful gripe though.

Wow! I really went overboard on the word count, didn¡¯t I? I didn¡¯t even fully commit to the initial bit about conversing with you like Andy does with David. I guess I got so wound up in talking about the strangely alluring weirdness of ¡°Rent-a-Pal,¡± I couldn¡¯t concentrate on my own creativity.

What¡¯s that? What a relief. I¡¯m glad you don¡¯t mind. And thanks for making it down this far. Oh, you want to know if you should see the movie? If you relate to David¡¯s woes or find yourself hypnotized by creeping cinematic dread, the answer is absolutely yes! In fact, I¡¯d say ¡°Rent-a-Pal¡¯s¡± mesmeric qualities make it a uniquely memorable indie chiller. Would I steer you wrong? Please, don¡¯t mention it. I¡¯m happy to help. After all, what are friends for?

Review Score: 85