Before the digital age and the internet, as we know it, dating services connected hopefuls through video dating in the early ‘90s. To say it was an awkward form of dating would be a vast understatement. For a fee, you could record a short pitch that summed up who you were and what you wanted in a partner, to be cataloged and collected with every other paying member, video rental store style. Using the stats on the label, you then selected potential mates to watch there or at home. Suddenly the world of online dating doesn’t seem so bad. Rent-A-Pal is a retro-styled thriller that uses the dated video dating concept to weave an unsettling but familiar character study.
Set in 1990, Brian Landis Folkins stars as David, a lonely bachelor living in the basement of his mom’s (Kathleen Brady) home and working as her full-time caregiver. She has dementia and requires his supervision and help nearly round the clock, ensuring he has no social life. That she can’t remember who he is only exacerbates his need to connect with others. He signs up for video dating in search of a partner, and it leads him to stumble upon a VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. On it, he finds Andy (Wil Wheaton), a charming extrovert that promises true friendship. The more time he spends with Andy’s tape, the more he realizes that Andy’s company comes with a steep toll that David will have to sacrifice to afford.
Written and directed by Jon Stevenson, making his feature debut, Rent-A-Pal is deeply submersed in its period. From the score to the lo-fi VHS aesthetic to the production design, every inch of this movie screams 1990. Stevenson demonstrates a keen eye for detail in crafting this weird little world.
At a runtime of nearly two hours, Rent-A-Pal plays like a quiet character study, getting us acquainted with David’s profound loneliness while he embarks on his sojourn for a meaningful relationship. Folkins plays David with a genuine earnestness that maintains audience allegiance for most of it. Opposite him is Wheaton’s confident creeper, Andy. Andy says all the right things, but there’s a sinister underpinning that keeps you unsettled. Before long, David is shirking all responsibilities to hang out in his dark basement with his VHS buddy. That is until he meets Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a shy video dater that couldn’t be any kinder. It sparks Andy’s jealousy and creates volatile tension for David. David’s sanity, life, and tenuous personal relationships are at stake.
Much of Stevenson’s film plays like an intimate psychodrama, painting a destructive picture of a desperate man being swallowed whole by dedicating his entire adult life to a mentally unwell mother that toggles between aloof and vicious. His slow unraveling as he gives in to his more selfish impulses, spurned on by his new friend, slowly strips away the empathy he’d earned in the first half of the film as things grow darker.
The third act robs all the goodwill entirely, as David’s journey shifts from unsettling ambiguity to full-blown predictability. The brutal climax feels as rushed as it does unnecessarily mean-spirited, ending on a dour note that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The narrative abandons thoughtful new examinations on the human condition in favor of retreading familiar ground.
Ultimately, Rent-A-Pal is a dramatic character study that favors full atmospheric submersion and details over characterization. It throws both the pacing and the character arcs off balance; late-game personality shifts don’t feel wholly earned. The shocking violence that comes is rendered all the more repulsive as a result, but that’s more detrimental here. Light on scares, expect a measured psychodrama with an emphasis on retro style. It’s well crafted and well acted, but while some might be lured into this introspective world, most will want to put this video back on the shelf.
Rent-A-Pal releases in theaters and VOD on September 11, 2020.