Rent-A-Pal is technically set in 1990, but this throwback thriller is a reminder of how that turn-of-the-decade year was very much still the ‘80s, in every way that mattered. From its opening credits in that pixelated VCR font to vintage cans of Pepsi, writer and director Jon Stevenson’s feature debut is steeped in the bygone era. It’s initially nostalgic for anyone who grew up adjusting the tracking, but Rent-A-Pal quickly jolts audiences out of that positive feeling. This is not Stranger Things or It; 40-year-old protagonist David (Brian Landis Folkins) doesn’t have a group of best friends who go on adventures and fight evil. Instead, he merely wants someone — anyone — to help him out of his state of loneliness. While his methods for trying to find companionship are all decades-old, and VCR-based, the emotions at the core of Rent-A-Pal don’t feel that distant from 2020 and its digital solutions for human connection.
David spends practically every moment at home with his mother (Kathleen Brady), who suffers from dementia. His isolated life is consumed by caregiving, with video dating serving as his only avenue for meeting people. “Video Rendezvous” and its VCR-enabled personal ads are like a proto-Tinder, with the fast-forward function serving as a swipe left. If David sees someone he likes, he contacts the agency and hopes she feels the same, but six months on the service haven’t yet proven fruitful, and David’s desperation is plain.
When he goes (in person!) to pick up a new set of VHSs of potential dates, David discovers a different video in the bin: “Rent-A-Pal.” He brings it home, where pressing play introduces him to the tape’s host, Andy (Wil Wheaton), who just wants to be friends. The video plays like a conversation, with Andy asking his audience questions and offering responses that make it seem like he’s listening. He plays a game of Go Fish, tells a joke (that hits oddly close to home to Andy’s experience), and raises a glass to his new friend.
David practically wears out the tape with obsessive repeated viewings, finding solace with someone who seems to care, taking every moment he can in front of the TV to get away from the challenges of attending to his often difficult mother. The combination of David’s loneliness and Andy’s odd companionship pickles him in his mother’s basement, turning the man who initially seemed sweet into something sour. When David finally finds a match through “Video Rendezvous” named Lisa (Amy Rutledge), he learns that his new “pal” doesn’t like to be left alone either.
Rent-A-Pal is effectively unpleasant, but its shift in tone from uncomfortable, dark humor to something truly disturbing is rattling; some viewers, previously on board, might find more than they bargained for in its distressing — though not unexpected — third act. However, writer/director Stevenson’s concept does work, even if the script doesn’t seem interested in parsing out the true nature of what is really going on with Andy, or if it’s all in David’s head.
The casting works well here too: Wheaton’s trademark puppy dog eagerness curdles into something needier and more unpleasant, while the lesser-known Folkins excels at making David both sympathetic and scary. Producer Jimmy Weber’s sinister synth score establishes both the unnerving mood and the vintage setting. His fellow producer Brandon Fryman’s production design nails the look of a sad suburban house in the era, all captured by Scott Park’s cinematography that stylishly zeroes in on the details (including some fun under-the-hood shots from inside the VCR).
Though Rent-A-Pal has a scene at the most retro of spots — RIP roller rinks — its commentary on how isolation and digital influence can mutate a man feels rooted in the present. There’s a line to be drawn from “Rent-A-Pal” and video personal ads to Reddit and Tinder, with the craving for connection — and the dangers when someone can’t find it — serving as a depressing constant across the decades.
“Rent-A-Pal” is out Friday in select theaters and on demand.