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You’ve got a friend in TV – ‘Rent-A-Pal’

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It’s tough to argue against the superiority of streaming services and the like versus the old days of physical video rentals. The vast selection and ease of use are certainly huge plusses. That said, there’s something that we’ve lost with the disappearance of the Blockbusters of the world.

Specifically, that evening stroll through the aisles to browse through the lurid and garish covers that marked the many low-rent horror offerings. There was something delightful about examining the over-the-top box art, knowing full well that the contents would be barely reflected (if at all) by those images, and picking one up anyway.

Those kinds of lo-fi thrills are a bit tougher to come by these days, which is why it is such a joy to discover a movie like “Rent-A-Pal,” currently available through VOD outlets. It’s a throwback, a period piece set in 1990 that is wonderfully evocative of that specific time and place. Written and directed by Jon Stevenson, it’s a retro thriller that digs into the power of loneliness and the lengths to which we will go in order to alleviate that feeling of isolation.

It’s a film that wears its influences – narrative, aesthetic and otherwise – proudly, with a look and feel that perfectly captures that classic video store seediness while also providing a much more compelling and competently-made product.

David (Brian Landis Folkins, “Hoax”) lives in Colorado with his mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady). She suffers from dementia, so providing her with care is his full-time job; the two get by on her Social Security income. As you might imagine, David’s situation isolates him, leaving him very lonely. In an effort to find someone, he signs up for a video dating service, but despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to make a match.

One day, while at the service’s headquarters to pick up some new video possibilities, he happens to catch a glimpse of a tape in the bargain bin. Titled simply “Rent-A-Pal,” it purports to offer some sort of facsimile of friendship. Intrigued (and somewhat desperate), he takes a chance and purchases it.

When he returns home and pops in the tape, he’s introduced to Andy (Wil Wheaton, “Max Reload and the Nether Blasters”). Seated in an armchair in a nondescript living space, Andy offers himself up as a potential best friend, asking questions and telling stories while leaving space for a response. He offers advice and sympathy and even plays Go Fish. All of it previously recorded, of course.

Initially, David finds the whole thing rather silly, but as he grows sadder and lonelier, he begins to connect with Andy. He watches it over and over, learning the cadences and pauses well enough that he can immerse himself in a reality in which this is a two-way interaction.

When David finally makes a video dating connection with a woman named Lisa (Amy Rutledge), things look to finally be going his way. She is sweet and caring and seems to like him and is understanding of his situation. But as things progress, David’s relationship with Andy begins to take on a sinister tone. Is Andy as static as we believe him to be? Or is there sentience there? Can a prerecorded pal be vindictive or jealous? And can David’s relationships in the real world survive the one he has with his new friend?

“Rent-A-Pal” is PRECISELY the sort of movie that you might have chosen during one of those late-night Blockbuster trips back in the early ‘90s. The fact that it was made in the present day makes it all the more engaging, layering in some nostalgia (and some MUCH better filmmaking) atop the extremely specific combination of timeframe and narrative. It evokes all the cheesy thrills we love from those disposable movies while also finding real things to say about what it means to be lonely.

This marks Jon Stevenson’s feature debut as both writer and director (though he does have some other behind-the-camera experience), but it doesn’t play like a debut. In less capable hands, “Rent-A-Pal” could have descended into cornball camp, coming off as simply silly. Instead, he finds a way to ground his premise, turning what could have been ridiculous into something genuinely relatable and threading the needle regarding the ambiguity of what’s really happening. He’s got a strong aesthetic eye as well, one that produces some really striking images that only accentuate the good work he’s doing.

He also benefits from a dynamite lead performance from Folkins. In his hands, David’s sadness never falls into the realm of the pathetic; his loneliness feels earned and real. There’s a lived-in quality to the performance that feels incredibly honest and helps to elevate the entire film. What unraveling we see is controlled and nuanced, giving the character dimension that is often lacking in this kind of thriller. Oh, and his primary scene partner is an image on a TV set, yet those interactions feel fleshed out and genuine. Phenomenal work.

And let’s talk about Andy. Wil Wheaton doesn’t always get a ton of credit for his talents, but he’s really good here. Like, REALLY good. The chipper, sweater-vested Andy appears perfectly nice on the surface, yet Wheaton manages to make him feel deeply unsettling – particularly when things start to go off the rails a little and cracks (real or imagined) appear in the veneer. It’s an excellent performance rendered all the more impressive by the fact that it was likely done solo.

“Rent-A-Pal” is an unexpected delight, the sort of movie that feels both like a throwback and very current, evoking feelings of isolation and loneliness that likely ring all too familiar to viewers at this moment in time. Thanks to an engaging concept, a quality aesthetic and a pair of dynamite performances, it’s one hell of a watch. Tell your friends.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 14 September 2020 14:21

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