Despite a few flaws that keep it from truly standing out, Jon Stevenson’s debut Rent-A-Pal is a fun thriller with good performances.
The negative effects of extreme solitude have always been a popular topic within the horror genre, Jon Stevenson’s directorial debut Rent-A-Pal is another film to add to the pile. David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a desperate man living in the 90s attempting, with little success, to find a partner through a video dating service. At a glance, he’s a stereotypical sort of “loser”: he’s awkward, he stumbles on his words, he doesn’t have any friends, and to top it all off… he still lives with his mother, who is currently under his care and suffering from a pretty serious case of dementia.
After quite a few too many dating attempts gone sour, David stumbles upon a new VHS tape, titled Rent-A-Pal. Distraught and needing to experience some sort of connection, David decides to see what exactly it is. We’re soon introduced to Andy (Wil Wheaton), and, in Andy, David finds something that he had been longing for practically his entire life: companionship. His life seemingly picks up as he begins opening up to Andy, as he’s able to use talking to him as a coping mechanism when he needs to vent about his life with his mother, his father’s suicide, and his failed dating life. Things begin to pick up, he finds himself happier, and even ends up finding a date, who is just as interested in him as he is in her. These good things don’t come without a cost though, and David’s relationship with Andy soon becomes quite troubling.
This leads to a descent into madness in which David’s perception of reality is challenged by the very thing that brought him so much joy. As he and his newfound love interest Lisa (Amy Rutledge) begin to get closer, Andy grows jealous and does what he can to foil the relationship, messing with David’s head as much as possible. This dilemma isn’t anything new by any means: plenty of films have tackled this idea of technology turning on man when we become dependent on it. However, are a few things that make Rent-A-Pal an entertaining little thrill ride, even if it misses the mark in some other areas. Folkins and Wheaton both sell their roles very well, and the contrasting characters that they play make for some interesting and extremely entertaining chemistry.
Another interesting aspect in Rent-A-Pal is its use of color, or lack thereof. This world seems to be drained of all color, all locations are gloomy, desolate, and dark. This makes the scenes sort of uncanny for the viewer, and really makes us get into the mental state of the protagonist throughout. His life is mundane, and he himself feels drained between caring for his mother and his disconnect from quite literally everyone around him, and the world built around him reflects that.
The film loses a bit of traction when it abandons its fun nature in order to try and build its characters more than it can handle. The ideas themselves are interesting, like David having a sort of troubling childhood and not being able to face the trauma, trying to reconcile with his father’s suicide and how his mother had always been a looming figure in the back of his mind, despite wanting to love her and care for her. The problem is that these things aren’t really built upon, so when the finale rolls around, it comes off as a bit unbelievable and absurd just for the sake of being absurd, even with everything else established beforehand. There are a lot of things about it that end up feeling half-baked, and David reaching peak insanity is one of them. It all feels sort of sudden, which it shouldn’t, since the film was supposedly building up to this moment. Only, it instead lost itself earlier on, trying to make it so its main character could do some completely crazy things. It could have worked if it didn’t feel so forced, and if the film had made it clear from the beginning that it was going for this kind of development. Instead, everything seemingly happens last minute, and as a result it feels a bit too out there, even within the film’s circumstances.
Despite its flaws, Rent-A-Pal manages to be an enjoyable drama. Between some good central performances, a fair share of laughs, some creepy moments, it’s an entertaining hour and forty minutes, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Rent-A-Pal opens in US cinemas and on demand on September 11.
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