3 out of 5

Directed by: Jon Stevenson

A simple and smartly delivered concept, which mostly veers from expected indulgences.

David (Brian Landis Folkins) is over the hill, living at home in his mom’s basement. This would be stereotypical shorthand description for a loser, but that’s not David, not exactly: he’s lonely, and he’s isolated – so perhaps lacking in the slickest of social graces – but the way Folkins plays him, and the way writer / director Jon Stevenson has chosen to represent him, absent of the usual sad-sack visual cues, allows us to sympathize with the character. He’s shy, and a surface-level read – though more can be extrapolated from what we learn of David along the way – has him as being relegated to this life due to needing to take care of his aging mother (Kathleen Brady), who succumbed to dementia at some point after his father’s suicide.

But even before we get there, Rent-A-Pal’s opening scenes are careful, and precise, showing David reviewing VHS dating tapes – a pre-internet era concept in which you film a segment talking about yourself, send it in, and then get to review segments of others talking about themselves, and elect those you’re interested in, hoping to find a “match” with someone’s who’s returned an election for you in kind. This is certainly relatable to online dating, but it’s likely extensible enough to any given era’s version of the relatively “blind” dating pool, and also gives an approximate time and place to our movie. However, here again is Stevenson’s presentation, along with composer Jimmy Weber and cinematographer Scott Park, precise: this isn’t nostalgic throwback stuff with a synth score; it feels organic, and watching David scribble down notes on the girls’ tapes he’s interested in isn’t voyeuristic – it’s where our sympathizing begins. We get it, right? – the half-hearted hope for someone, or something of interest. David’s a bit of a schlub but certainly not hopeless; his style isn’t “hip” but it’s also not forcefully 80s / 90s. And so as the film proceeds to him going about his day, patiently attending to his mother – feeding, bathroom duties, etc. – a certain picture is painted: a nice guy.

David heads down to the VHS dating site to re-record a fresh greeting video; while there – the movie hammering home the repeated charges to his credit card David occurs upon each visit, setting a trend of minor offenses – he sees a budget video bin with a “Rent-A-Pal” video. Feeling dejected by a lack of replies to his video, it’s a curiosity purchase.

Rent-A-Pal features Andy (Wil Wheaton), dressed in sweater and slacks, seated on a comfy chair in a blank room, talking directly to the viewer. Andy pauses for replies. Andy plays card with you; Andy listens to your stories, tells some of his own. David laughs at the artifice; he isn’t fooled. But he continues watching. And over the course of some well-edited sequences, we see how this stacks on to his daily habits and minor grievances, the familiarity of the video offering respite: David starts replying to Andy, and matching his conversational banter to the tape. Here, the film intelligently avoids abusing the format: Andy never breaches VHS protocol; David never imagines the tape as coming to life or anything. It’s clear that it’s a static conversation at all points, and that David is just adapting to it.

Now on to that virtual pal, start to sprinkle some bad seeds. Positive, “be yourself” advice that masks a “take what you’re owed” mentality. Commiseration on tough mothers and failed dates that suggests a “you versus them” point of view; that casts women as misunderstanding, as deceitful. Enough of this mimics casual conversations you’ve likely been part of to make it believable (up to a point, which I’ll get to momentarily), and so the morphing of the shy, nice guy into someone who starts to act on these advices is also quite believable, especially when some inciting events – say, an uncomfortable moment in a date – seem to fall in line with all that stuff Andy has been talking about. When the script starts to add in bits and pieces of David’s background, and we witness further behaviors – nothing overt – we can further see how “easy” this transformation is, and how close the toxic behavior might be to our own surfaces, given allowances and nudges to act a certain way.

This is all well and good. Unfortunately, a few things significantly deflate the impact, and the subtlety, of what Rent-A-Pal is doing. If this was just relegated to the conclusion, that might actually be somewhat forgivable; given the tone of the film as something of a thriller – i.e. not a comedy; not a romance – you sense things are going to head in a certain direction, and so when they do… well, sure, it’s obvious, and it’s overkill, but if everything leading up to that is tight, fair enough. But despite my praise of the film’s careful attention to presentation, it slips here and there, and it slips too early, breaking – for me, anyway – my immersion; my belief in this scenario’s plausibility.

Firstly – and I’ll accept that this is minor, but it still bothered me – when David picks up the Rent-A-Pal video, there’s a quote from Regis and Kathie Lee on the back. It’s a generic quote, that could be taken one way or another – something like “Unbelievable!” – but given the actual content of the tape, the quote seems like a visual joke. I thought this was smart at first, adding another hint of era-flavoring to things, but it ended up bothering me more given the ‘secondly.’ Secondly – Rent-A-Pal’s content works when it’s indirect. That’s when it’s most haunting. It doesn’t work when “pal” Andy starts dropping f-bombs and talking about beating people up and ogling over “big tits” and banging chicks. If these parts of the video weren’t revealed until later, I think it could be effective, but we get to some of that content early on. This ruins the wink-wink nature of the thing and makes it more flagrant in what it’s doing, and even in this context, some of the manipulative tactics Andy employs don’t quite make sense. There’s a possible line of thought to follow that David was “imagining” these sections, but that’s not really suggested by the movie, and even given that, they would still appear too early in the film to be effective in that sense. This also extends to how David bonds with Rent-A-Pal: I do want to underline that the precision I’ve mentioned does exist for large chunks of the runtime. This isn’t a movie that starts well and then breaks, rather it’s pretty strong throughout and then breaks in selected moments. One of those breaks is, again, too early: overly edited shots of David and his TV, up close to the screen, stroking Andy’s paused face. It’s just too much at that point, before we’ve seen the character really descend in to overt belief with Andy’s “lessons.” And when we do get to the events that push David over the line in his behaviors, they are clunkily forced and telegraphed.

And then, lastly, yeah, that ending. As a sole misstep, Rent-A-Pal would still be a top-tier recommendation. But as an addition to these other elements which break the spell – and which unsettle the otherwise incredibly careful character work! – it just seals the deal on the thing being imperfect. Undeniably interesting, and masterfully handled for some stretches, but several points short of really nailing something that could’ve been really incisive and affecting.