The title "Rent-A-Pal" may suggest that what you're about to watch is some sort of screwball, buddy-comedy. That couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, what you'll find is a surprisingly gripping psychological thriller, one that is definitely worth watching but somehow feels like it doesn't live up to its fullest potential.
The only recognizable star in "Rent-A-Pal" is Wil Wheaton ("Stand By Me," "Toy Soldiers," "Star Trek: The Next Generation), who plays a mysterious man named Andy. Apparently back in 1990 - when this film is set - dating services weren't as sophisticated as they are now. Before chat rooms, before Match.com, men and women would pay to have themselves video-taped, and then match-making companies would compile these "profile" tapes together and share with people that they think might be a good match.
A lonely, nerdy, introvert named David (Brian Landis Folkins) picks up VHS tapes from his matchmaker, and watches them alone in his basement, hoping to find the perfect match. His situation is not as pitiful as you may think...he's single, we learn, primarily because he has dedicated his life to taking care of his aging mother (Kathleen Brady), whom he lives with and whom is battling dementia.
A middle-aged man without a real job and literally living in his parents' basement? What a catch!
On one specific trip to the match-maker, David comes back with a strange VHS tape entitled "Rent-A-Pal." On it, he meets Andy.
If you thought that a VHS-dating-service was a bit strange (I lived through the 80s and 90s and never knew such a thing existed), you'll be even more shocked to learn that this idea of "renting a friend" was also a real thing. The premise: You play the tape, and the person on your TV seems to interact with you. "What's your name?" The person might ask you, pause for a moment and then say something generic like, "Oh what a great name! I have a friend with that name! So what did you do today?" ...and so forth and so on. Apparently for some, this was the only way to have human connection, and it was also a prophetic pre-cursor to a time where being friends with people you've never met via a monitor wouldn't be all that strange at all.
So David becomes friends with Andy, a buttoned-up, wholesome man whose eyes and demeanor scream "serial-killer" more than they do "best bud." But then things get a bit...weird. Andy seems to actually be able to understand and communicate with David. David becomes pulled into the relationship in surprising ways. When an eventual match does come along (Amy Rutledge), Andy rages with jealousy over David's newfound friend.
The entirety of "Rent-A-Pal" feels like a low-budget, independent project, mainly because that's exactly what it is. But don't confuse "unknown" with "not very good" because Brian Landis Folkins is actually quite phenomenal in the role of David...in fact, the movie rests squarely on his shoulders and he delivers. Being set in 1990 too, brings a creepy quality to the film, and to some, seeing a VCR at all might seem like a scary, ancient tool used by some forgotten civilization millions of years ago.
But despite the slow-build, something seems a bit empty about where "Rent-A-Pal" ultimately leads us, and a film that seems so unique ends up detouring back to a familiar road. Still, this was a surprising find, and even though it might be tucked way in the back of the proverbial store, "Rent-A-Pal" is definitely worth checking out.
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
Starring: Brian Landis Folkins, Will Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady.
Written and Directed by Jon Stevenson (feature-film debut).
"Rent-A-Pal" is available on streaming services as of Friday, September 11th, 2020.
Watch Tom's interview with "Rent-A-Pal" co-star, Wil Wheaton, below:
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