Loneliness has been our collective, unasked-for friend for 2020. As most semblances of sociality have, quite literally, been canceled, most of us have sacrificed our physical togetherness for tech-friendly means of communicating— attempting to fill the void of our isolation with means that could never be quite as fulfilling or tangible. While this recent longing for communion and companionship may be foreign to some, Jon Stevenson and IFC Midnight’s release RENT-A-PAL reminds us that loneliness, no matter the circumstances of the world, pandemic or no pandemic, is nothing new— we’ve just found new ways (and new means of technology) to process it.
Set in the pre-digital era of 1990, David (Brian Landis Folkins) is all-consumed with caring for his elderly, difficult mother, so much so that his own personal life is devoid of friendships and romance, both of which he longs for. After utilizing a video matchmaking service with no luck for months on end, he stumbles upon a VHS tape titled “Rent-A-Pal” in which he engages in a (seemingly) one-sided friendship with a pre-taped Andy (Wil Wheaton). David grows increasingly addicted to his “friendship” with Andy while allowing it to dominate (and destroy) his life.
RENT-A-PAL has a lot on its mind for its 108-minute run time, and very little of it feels convoluted, which is no easy task. Stevenson weaves themes of isolation, the endless search for companionship in all areas of life, toxic masculinity that spreads like a disease, and how the burden of caring for another can lead to loss of identity for oneself. In what may be interpreted as an allegory for the fearful distance we often put between ourselves and the very things we want most in life, Stevenson’s ever-timely usage of technology as a means of both connecting and disconnecting to/from each other feels more relevant than the film’s early ‘90s setting. Ironically, the connection we crave through whatever technology is deemed pertinent to the times can also be the very thing that drives us apart. In 2020, it’s social media; in 1990, it was pre-recorded VHS tapes. David’s “conversations” with a pre-taped pal Andy are one-sided— fixed and impersonal, like the Internet would be, 30 years later. (PS: There is a contemporary version of Andy’s Rent-A-Pal service in the form of a site called Rentafriend.com, by the way).
Most of us have bits of protagonist David within us, so our connection to him and his plight feels immediate. Folkins as David earns our empathy, even when his arc eventually becomes tragic. My heart shattered into a thousand pieces at Folkins’ monologue within the first 20 minutes, as he beautifully recalls his best qualities during a matchmaking video-taping— before sadly being cut short when he exceeds the allotted time. “I really wanna meet someone, anyone who would wanna meet me.” He emulates genuine kindness, care, and honesty, as he is very forthright about his living situation with his potential matches. When his life, sanity, and IRL relationships start to spiral out of control, it’s affecting, because we care.
Aside from Folkins, Wil Wheaton as the pre-taped Andy is perfectly cast as well, with just the right amount of increasing sociopathy— smiling and inviting during one exchange; manipulative and mocking (especially during a pre-ejaculation date sequence) the next. Andy gradually begins to respond as if he’s actually listening to David, as the topics of conversation grow darker. Regaling David with stories of violence and misogyny, “You are entitled to the things you want,” Andy seeps into David’s head, feeding into his aggression and giving him all the wrong ideas about what constitutes healthy love and friendship with mutual understanding. The remaining supporting cast, including David’s mother and an eventual love interest, can feel over-the-top at times, but nothing too distracting.
Slowly taking its time, as much of the film is better described as a dramatic character study (with an overarching sense of dread for what you feel coming) RENT-A-PAL builds to a crescendo before ratcheting up the violence and blood for its finale and a bleak ending. Stick around for a brief (albeit unnecessary) post-credits scene as well.
While its “scares” may be minimal (with the exception of a chilling reveal that Andy may be physically closer to David than we had thought) RENT-A-PAL’s timely social commentary and ability to derive sentiment from the viewer make this another solid win for independent horror in 2020.
Feeling lonely? RENT-A-PAL will be available in select theaters, Digital, and Cable Video On Demand on September 11, 2020.