‘Rent-A-Pal’ Showcases The Horror Of Being Stuck At Home And Lonely

by Jonah Desneux on September 11, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Opening in select theaters, drive-ins, and VOD on September 11.

As ironic as it might seem, one of the most enjoyable ways to spend quarantine is by watching Jon Stevenson’s new pseudo-horror film about being stuck inside a house you desperately wish to get out of. Rent-A-Pal is an independent gem that accidentally captures the essence of this time perfectly. Commenting on the mental exhaustion of loneliness, living a life on pause, and the guilty resentment formed from being stuck with a loved one 24/7, Rent-A-Pal is an excellent escapist film that also makes you reflect on the issues of escapism.

Set in the 90s and full of nostalgia, Rent-A-Pal revolves around David (Brain Landis Folkins) a lonely man who lives with and cares for his mother suffering from dementia. David struggles with caring for his mother, who has little memory of who he is, as he attempts to separate his childhood abuse from the necessary action he needs to take now. David is initially made to be a genuinely nice guy who got the short end of the stick in life. Like many of us, David’s greatest want is to have someone to love and be loved by. After multiple failed attempts at a match-making video service, David turns to a mysterious VHS tape called “Rent-A-Pal.” In his viewings, David meets and interacts with Andy (Wil Wheaton) an assumed actor who talks to the camera asking about the viewer’s day and making them feel comforted. A quick dependency is established between David and the tape and the line of what is real and what’s not is blurred. 

Rent-A-Pal works wonderfully as a drama, comedy, and the eventual horror turn. Stevenson captures the strengths of each genre and combines them for a unique yet simple viewing experience. Never taking itself too seriously, yet having strong messaging and performances that transcend the b-movie stigma, Rent-A-Pal goes off in many directions while maintaining a clean composure. The film can be absurdly silly in one moment and then punch you in the gut with drama the next. Pulling this off is a lot easier said than done and Stevenson deserves an immense amount of credit for having everything land as effective as it does.

At its core, Rent-A-Pal simply does what many movies have done since the German Expressionism movement in the early days of cinema by exploring the mindset of a character going through a lot of shit. The film is entirely focused on how David feels, thinks, and reacts to the cruelty of the world around him and the weirdness he finds himself in. Until a somewhat too messy and unsatisfying end, David is made to be an everyday guy whose awkwardness is easily explained due to a traumatized past. We are made to feel empathetic for David and his current situation, while Stevenson also distances us not to deceive us with a bloody ending that can be expected. David is made to be rootable but not relatable, to keep some space from any faults that he may partake in. The audience is never lead to sympathize with the more than questionable actions of David but instead shown how something like this could happen. Rent-A-Pal is not a call for a societal change, it is a cautionary tale that we are all grateful we aren’t living ourselves. 

The film’s technical aspects are also that of excitement. With hypnotic camera angles and poppy montage sequences, all aspects of the film are felt with a purpose. The film plays with a wide range of emotions and the cinematography and editing complement it nicely. The film’s length could have done with a slightly shorter runtime, but the pacing makes up for that as much as possible with a smooth flow, never biting off more than it can chew. O

The most enjoyable treats Rent-A-Pal has to offer are Folkins and Wheaton’s performances. Both David and Andy are so enchantingly strange and both actors play upon this to fantastic results. At times they are both over-the-top but never go too far losing the film’s authentic quality. Folkins excels at playing a man with the simplest of dreams but is stuck dealing with all disappointment after disappointment. Folkins shows us how this would eat away at one’s mental state, making the weird understandable. David is a desperate man on the edge of crippling desperation. Folkins shows us this while also giving us hope that everything will work out in the end for the character that he gives his all.

Wheaton also excels in his portrayal of a man who comes to symbolize a nostalgic escape. The film brings up many mysteries about who Andy is, the purpose of the tape, the hypnotic effects it has and for all of this to work, Wheaton has to be believe as the man behind the screen. Andy is full of an unsettling charm and a constant pressure to do no wrong. Playing the role of an almost long distance cult leader, Wheaton submerges into a character that you can believe would prey upon the loneliness of others. That is if you believe the “Rent-A-Pal” tape is even intended to have said malice purpose. If you’re in the other camp of it being a simple VHS and David runs away with the wild ideas he thinks are there but aren’t, then Wheaton is still phenomenal as a cheesy host you’d see in a 90s educational video. Both ideas showcase the talent that Wheaton has but is not often seen.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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