IFC Midnight have something special to offer yet again, and this time it features Will Wheaton as a creepy Mr. Rogers type character in Rent-A-Pal. IFC has carried 2020 when it comes to horror films, and this is just another successful addition. Also, Rent-A-Pal is the latest film to showcase the scary reality of caring for an aging parent with dementia, and how it can affect the individuals around them.
Rent-A-Pal is inspired by Rent-A-Friend, the old VHS tape for lonely individuals. After viewing that tape on my own, it makes this film much more unsettling. This is the directional debut for Jon Stevenson, and it’s a successful outing. Rent-A-Pal stars Will Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, and Brian Folkins. Written by Stevenson, the film is set in 1990 (Before Tinder) and follows David (Folkins), a lonely bachelor who is searching for an escape from taking care of his aging mother. While searching for love using a video dating service, he locates a tape called Rent-A-Pal.
This tape introduces David to Andy (Wheaton), the host of Rent-A-Pal, and the new source fulfilling David’s desire for company, compassion, and friendship. David is very caring towards his sickly mother, but it’s clear he wants a life of his own outside of dealing with her. He’s an introvert, a middle-aged geek, fumbles this video dating service, and his life is not the most attractive. His mother, Lucille (Brady), has dementia and constantly confuses David for her deceased husband. David’s life is so boring, but Stevenson has written a character for you to easily feel sorry for up until David goes insane.
Once David finds the Rent-A-Pal tape, you gradually become immersed in the odd interactions between these two. Andy isn’t real, but David replays the tape so much that he develops an unhealthy safe spot with the man on his television. Adding to that, it gets to the point where it seems like something supernatural is occurring. However, David is so immersed in this relationship with Andy that he has remembered all the words and times out his responses. Performance wise, this will definitely be a callback for Folkins if he stars in future films. He embodies the eccentric and desperate nature of David with ease, and makes you feel for the characters situation.
Wheaton is great as our Rent-A-Pal, an overly caring, but weird presence that becomes David’s therapist per multiple re-watches. Rutledge stars as Lisa, David’s eventual date that goes well until it doesn’t. She perfectly captures this shy, down to earth nature and the chemistry between the three actors is so good. Stevenson does a solid job at getting you glued to the screen during the late-night chats between Andy and David. He sets it up in a way where you’re forced to experience this unhealthy descent into madness with David.
At its core, Rent-A-Pal is an extreme look at how too much of anything can have severe consequences. In this case, solitude has finally become an enemy for David because he is completely disconnected from reality by the end. The cinematography by Scott Park creates a visual example of just how disconnected David has become and adds a unique vibe to the films setting. However, the sudden shift from drama to horror does a feel slightly out of place. David is bonkers by the end, but his actions feel over the top.
Rent-A-Pal fumbles a bit in the end, but overall, this is a terrific directional debut by Stevenson. Wheaton shines in as our virtual friend, and this is a breakout performance from Folkins. This dramatic horror film could easily develop a cult following of sorts as the years go by.