Move over, Norman Bates. Here comes another lonely single man with mommy issues and a diminishing grasp on reality. He’s David, the central figure of Jon Stevenson’s darkly comic psychological thriller, and despite being superbly played by Brian Landis Folkins, he’s not even the most memorable character in Rent-a-Pal.
That would be Andy, seen only in a fuzzy VHS tape on a television screen. Portrayed by Wil Wheaton (Stand by Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation), he’s Andy’s imaginary friend who offers him just the sort of companionship and emotional support he needs to get through a difficult time in his life. Which goes about as well as you would expect in a film such as this.
Expertly keeps you on edge.
Set in 1990 in the pre-internet dating era, the ingeniously constructed tale revolves around David’s desperate efforts to find a girlfriend through a dating service called Video Rendezvous. Men and women tape brief testimonials about themselves, and when two people agree that they like what they see, a meeting is arranged. The unassuming David is hardly a catch, since he’s a full-time caretaker for his dementia-suffering elderly mother (Kathleen Brady, Breaking Bad) and lives in the basement of her house. His mother, who frequently confuses David for his late father, reacts to his solicitous efforts with a mixture of confusion and hostility.
One day, during another frustrating visit to Video Rendezvous’ office, David impulsively buys a VHS tape dubbed “Rent-A-Pal” that he finds in a bargain bin. He’s thus introduced to Andy, who exudes a Mister Rogers-like warmth and sincerity while clad in an unthreatening sweater vest and tie. Uncannily designed to simulate real interaction, the endlessly enthusiastic video Andy offers David advice and comfort while seeming to take a great interest in his life. Swapping stories of painful incidents from their pasts or playing a game of Go Fish, they quickly bond.
Meanwhile, David finds his luck improving when he’s matched up with Lisa (an appealing Amy Rutledge), a sweet-natured nurse with whom he forms an emotional connection. Things appear to be going well, until Andy seems to take umbrage at David’s newfound sense of well-being. Stevenson’s screenplay is ingeniously effective depicting the interactions between David and Andy, the latter subtly beginning to show signs of not being confined to his video recording. The disturbing effects are at first subtle, until you slowly begin to realize that the increasingly direct back-and-forth is either a reflection of David’s incipient madness or perhaps something stranger going on. Unfortunately, Rent-A-Pal squanders the delicious tension it builds (perhaps a bit too slowly, at 108 minutes) when its final act lurches into more conventional, gory horror-film territory.
What makes the film work as well as it does, at least up to a point, are the perfectly calibrated performances. Folkins is superb as the socially maladroit Andy, making his character sympathetic in his genuine satisfaction in being a caretaker despite the personal toll it enacts. And Wheaton, whose entire performance consists of sitting in a chair and talking directly to the camera, uses his innate likeability to at first disarming and then chillingly creepy effect.
Adding to the overall impact are the expert production design and technical aspects, which fully convey the story’s time setting and low-tech VHS aesthetic.
Available in theaters and On Demand
Production company: Pretty People Pictures
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge, Adrian Egolf
Director/screenwriter/editor: Jon Stevenson
Producers: Annie Baker, Brian Landis Folkins, Robert B. Martin Jr., Jon Stevenson, Jimmy Weber
Executive producer: Raphael Margules
Director of photography: Brian Park
Production designer: Brandon Fryman
Composer: Jimmy Webber
Casting director: Robert B. Martin Jr.