It’s easy to glean how the idea for Rent-A-Pal, the 1990-set debut feature from writer/director Jon Stevenson, could’ve come about. Thoroughly 21st-century equivalents already exist, albeit with varying tones and in different genres, including Her and the far sillier Jexi. In both of those two features, a man forms a relationship with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant, with their bond eventually taking over and transforming his life. The same basically proves true here, too, but with yesterday’s technology instead of today’s or tomorrow’s — hence the VHS cassette featuring the seemingly friendly and caring Andy (Wil Wheaton) that gives Rent-A-Pal its title.
A decade into his stint as the sole carer for his dementia-afflicted mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), David (Brian Landis Folkins) isn’t having any luck finding companionship. He rarely leaves their modest Denver home, so meeting someone for either friendship or romance is virtually impossible. Via a dating service called Video Rendezvous, he attempts to make a connection — eagerly viewing tapes recorded by single women, then rushing to the company’s local base to re-film his own 30-second clip that’s sent on to available ladies. But on one of David’s trips back and forth to the service, he spies something else in their VHS bin, with the promise of a pal on demand and Andy’s smiling face instantly striking a chord.
Stevenson first takes his time establishing David’s status quo, his unhappiness and his routine, ensuring that viewers feel the character’s sorrow, yearning and fraying mental state. Indeed, as well as a thriller about a lonely middle-aged man endeavouring to ease his loneliness through technology, Rent-A-Pal doubles as a character study, surveying the malaise that weighs down its protagonist’s repetitive days. Whether he’s trying to spoon-feed his mother packet-mix macaroni and cheese, listening to her constant forgetful assertions that he’s actually his late father or navigating yet another unsuccessful Video Rendezvous transaction, David is both grasping at any chance for change that comes his way and resigned to thinking it’ll never happen. And it’s this detailed foundation that anchors the film when he not only begins to consider Andy his best friend — watching the tape over and over again, rewinding and replaying his favourite parts, spilling his secrets to it and building up a rapport in his own head — but when he also gets the opportunity to go on a date with local nurse Lisa (Amy Rutledge).
As anyone who has seen either of Rent-A-Pal’s contemporary-set thematic predecessors will know, the film’s premise dictates that David, Andy and Lisa can’t all just get along swimmingly. Toying with an unsettling mood from the outset, Stevenson leaps slowly but surely into unhinged territory, however — with David’s relationship with Andy quickly tinting his every decision to an unnerving extreme. In the process, as well as pondering humanity’s desperation to connect, Rent-A-Pal gets gleefully chaotic as David attempts to adjust to his new situation. The movie gets playfully deranged, too, as befitting a film in which its lonely lead figure sits cross-legged in front of the TV set whispering his inner-most thoughts to a recording designed to simulate friendship.
It’s to Rent-A-Pal’s benefit that, although it capitalises upon an easy scenario, simple answers aren’t forthcoming here. As well as contemplating just how far someone will go to both have and keep a friend (even one merely on a screen, and played with a balance of camaraderie and creepiness by Wheaton), the film explores the importance of perception in friendship on multiple levels. David feels as if Andy’s pre-recorded words are speaking only to him — and, more than that, that they’re specifically responding to him — but the movie feels no need to offer a definitive explanation to this train of thought. That one person can read much more into a relationship than another isn’t a new insight by any means, and yet it adds an astute extra layer to this retro-techno affair.
While Stevenson and production designer Brandon Fryman demonstrate a discerning eye for period authenticity, especially when it comes to VHS paraphernalia, Rent-A-Pal relies heavily upon its central performance. Even given the film’s throwback setting and concept, it still falls into a very familiar category — that’d be movies about struggling men who employ drastic means to alter their existence in the pursuit of solace, catharsis and contentment — but, with Folkins at its core, this never feels like just another feature on that ever-growing pile. Although the movie’s distinctive tone can’t be underestimated, it wouldn’t work without a fine-tuned lead portrayal. In fact, David’s disquieting reliance upon Andy, the disturbing descent that follows, and his all-round awkward, longing, increasingly questionable demeanour hits its mark because every move that Folkins makes in the role paints these escalating actions and reactions as the natural, inevitable trajectory.