RENT-A-PAL (2020)

September 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Everybody loves somebody sometime.” So sang the great Dean Martin. But what about the exception that proves the rule? Writer-director Jon Stevenson (in his directorial debut) offers up David, a 40 year old lonely heart, who is a full time caregiver for his dementia-afflicted mother. In between cleaning up after his mother and spoon-feeding her meals, David dreams of finding a soul mate.

Brian Landis Folkins stars as David, and he delivers a terrific performance in one of the strangest roles of the year. He manages to make David a guy we care about, despite his being … well … not the most exciting or charismatic dude you’ve met. Does it help that he doesn’t have a job and lives on his mother’s social security? No?  How about the fact that he lives in her basement? Still not impressed? Well, the film takes place around 1990, and David is a member of Video Rendezvous, a VHS dating service – the Match.com of 30 years ago. Getting hopeful for David?  Well you should know he has had zero matches. Poor guy.

One of Mr. Folkins best scenes occurs when we see him filming his personal video for the dating service. Well, it’s his re-do … and then a re-do of his re-do. That’s pretty much how David’s life goes. Later, while rummaging through the VHS tapes bargain bin, he stumbles upon one titled “Rent-A-Pal”. At home, he pops it into the VCR and just like that – Andy (played by Wil Wheaton, STAND BY ME) appears on screen, and over a few days, David and Andy form an odd bond – maybe the strongest bond you’ve seen between a person and a character on screen talking directly to the camera/person watching. Andy is chummy and charismatic, and also a bit creepy. In fact, some of this reminded me of the Mark Duplass movie CREEP.

We witness David deal with the disappointment of each day. He finds some joy when his mother (Kathleen Brady) is reciting Cary Grant’s dialogue in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and suddenly things look up when he has a match with Lisa (Amy Rutledge). Their first date is at Skate Land, and features the awkward chemistry of two lonely hearts, rather than one. They seem to like each other, though it may just be they are each excited to be noticed by anyone.

Since the film is billed as a thriller, we know things will go sideways at some point. However, even if you figure out where it’s headed, the path it takes may catch you off guard. As the bond between David and Andy crumbles, we witness David’s descent into madness. Whereas his connection to Lisa should have made his life better, his extended loneliness has pushed him to the brink, and he struggles to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The final 10-15 minutes turn very dark (and feel a bit rushed), and are kinda sad to watch. Director Stevenson has ensured a bleak feeling through most of the film with a washed out color palette. The only signs of brightness are the Skate Land sign, the receptionist’s jacket, and Andy’s glowing face on the TV. The performances are fun to watch, and Stevenson’s debut is a keeper. “So long, Pal.”

IFC will release this in select theaters and On Demand September 11, 2020

watch the trailer: