What to Watch Verdict
'Rent-A-Pal' projects the anguish of being stuck living a life you never chose, but squanders more emotive bursts of horror when the film's finale follows a predictable pattern.
📼 Fun 1990s vibe.
📼 Homelife horrors are touching.
📼 Expected ending.
📼 A bit longer than needed.
In today's technology obsessed, swipe-a-minute world, any narrative hinged on VHS dating services and fuzzy VCR tracking feels like a relic. Jon Stevenson's Rent-A-Pal doubles down on the notion by highlighting a larger trend that ties directly to Natalie Erika James' Relic. In 2020, we're seeing a continued uptick in horror stories about adults forced to stare a parent's mortal deterioration down like a deer in headlights. Rent-A-Pal uses horror to exploit the immense toll such a caretaker's burden can weigh, much like James' supernatural representation of familial grieving. Stevenson's interpretation doesn't deliver the same impactful punch, and veers down its own disturbing route, but does beg the question of how this horror trend will manifest next?
Brian Landis Folkins stars as David, a bleary-eyed outcast who lives at home with his not-all-there mother (Lucile, played by Kathleen Brady). David's restricted social interactions make dating near-impossible, except for a series of tapes called "Video Rendezvous" packed with possible "matches." Think Tinder, but for an analog era. After multiple passes and strikeouts, David pops in another video labeled "Rent-A-Pal," which adopts a friendship twist. With no significant connections in his life, David turns to the program's host Andy (Wil Wheaton) and pre-recorded "Go Fish." Then Andy starts talking back.
Stevenson's tone favors aggression and sadness when exploiting David's desperate circumstances. Lucile requires constant attention, leaving David to seek comfort from television set's warm glow, which he gazes upon like Carol in Poltergeist. He's tortured by his situation, cursed by compassion, as Lucile's overseeing becomes more demanding by the thankless night. Rent-A-Pal preys upon the weakest of basement dwellers given how David's self-pity and wallowing translate into an awkwardness that is (appropriately) cringe-worthy when he must film his own Video Rendezvous profile. We see a broken man, striving to honor his mother's memory, torn from within by delusional isolation.
Enter sweaters-and-smiles Andy, with Wil Wheaton's plucky energy as a Mr. Rogers-type who fills a void in David's existence. It starts with drunken conversations, as David nears rock bottom, chatting back and forth with playback monologues. Andy fulfills an emptiness in the same way current social satires detest how social media users crave likes, as Andy is this prototype best friend who is just so....nice. When David begins to find confidence, Andy starts going "off-script" by issuing temptations or coaxing David into embarrassment met with more spontaneous laughter. It's the expected narrative trajectory that exists within characters who'll do anything to be loved, and requested actions get grim. A man so desperate for adoration that he's manipulated by a program that oozes falsified serotonin that Wheaton can accentuate with his cackling brand of weaponized friendship.
There are moments where Rent-A-Pal nails the inexpressible frustrations of a son doing everything right, but still feeling this sense of punishment. Movies like Ari Aster's Hereditary have paved the way for this expressive brand of emotionally afflicted horror that's so personal and raw. Other times, the nostalgic reliance on Andy's possessive hold over David runs thin. Especially once a dating match on Video Rendezvous turns fruitful, and the lasagna-cooking Lisa (Amy Rutledge) presents a threat to Andy's relationship with David. Stevenson's stakes are immense, yet by going the outright horror route, climaxes during the film's third act leave a sour taste. Legitimate care goes into portraying David's challenges, his disassociated social ineptness, only to finish in the most bargain-brand genre fashion. A disappointment covered in homemade pasta sauce (weird, but important).
Rent-A-Pal is equally heartbreaking and frustrating since the bloody culmination of events fizzles when it should explode. Brian Landis Folkins finds empathy in an out-of-touch role, while Wil Wheaton is the unsettlingly upbeat mascot for peer pressure. Jon Stevenson recalls past technologies to provoke human fears that now manifest through different platforms while also corrupting the bond between mother and son with endured devastation. With a different ending, I'd be more smitten. Granted, scripted choices could be familiar enough for those who've felt these same destructive feelings, without an outlet, left searching for answers that don't exist.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.
By Lucy Buglass