David is a 40 year old single man who has dedicated his life to take care of his mother, who is suffering from dementia. Since we’re in the 90’s, there’s no internet dating services or other easy ways of getting to know someone, so in a desperate attempt to find someone he can share his life with, he signs up on Video Rendezvous, a video dating service (yes, this was a real thing back then). After failed attempts and little response, he one day comes over a VHS tape with the curious title Rent-A-Pal. Deciding to try it out, he brings it back home with him and meets his new friend Andy, who is sitting in a chair and pretending to have a real conversation with whoever is playing the VHS. Finding it awkward at first and struggling to make proper replies to Andy’s lines, he soon becomes accustomed to the conversations, and to David it feels like an actual friendship. Except, it’s just a simple VHS tape…or is it?
Rent-A-Pal is a well crafted psychological thriller, which gets pretty dark and depressing at times. Set in the 90’s, it does a very good job on recreating the era and makes it feel genuine. The portrayal of David and his dementia-suffering mother is both realistic and sad, without being dramatically overdone. It’s like seeing small glimpses of what an everyday life can be when taking care of someone with a condition like that. It is also interesting how the movie initially portrays David as a pretty nice guy, not the clichéd “loser” type or some new Norman Bates. He is genuinely caring and kind, and in one of his video dating performances he actually gives a really good and sympathetic speech about himself and his life, and how he takes care of his mother. However, the video dating service’s cameraman asks him to cut it down and have a re-take, so the end result ends up making him look like a total write-off instead. You can’t help but feeling sorry for the guy…
When the Rent-A-Pal tape starts playing, you don’t really know what to expect, but it feels somewhat creepy and uncanny. There’s nothing explicitly wrong with it, it’s just a normal-looking guy sitting in a chair, pretending to be the viewer’s “friend”, asking questions and delivering simple statements and jokes. And David becomes more and more obsessed with watching the video. Andy, despite being pre-recorded, gives him exactly what he needs: someone who seems to care, someone he can talk to, someone who listens. So, it’s not real…but for David it starts feeling real, and he starts rewinding the tape to certain parts that fits with what he wants to tell Andy, and what he wants him to say. Well…we can all see a few red flags here already, right?
Despite David’s increased obsession with the VHS tape, there are a few instances where something feels a bit off…and Andy’s lines become a bit strange. Andy’s effect on David becomes more and more apparent, and it’s not a good one…so when David finally has a chance of going on a date with a girl who even appears to be perfect for him, Andy’s influence actually makes it harder for him to get what he initially wanted: a girlfriend. Whatever black hole of loneliness that originally filled David’s heart, it has now been filled with Andy’s toxic influence. And it makes it even harder for David to live the life he wished for. While this being a 90’s centered movie, I guess you could easily draw some parallels to all kinds of negative internet influences. People who find themselves in a bad place (whether it be because of loneliness, depression, feeling of exclusion, or other things), might find a connection with someone or something online which gives them a feeling of belonging, but eventually just ends up destroying their every chance of living the life they hoped for as they sink further and further into a harmful rabbithole. And maybe that was the intention of Andy (and all “Andy’s) all along…
Driven by strong performances, Rent-A-Pal is a strange and dark journey, where you always keep wondering what’s going to happen next and where it’s all going to lead.
Directors: Jon Stevenson
Country & year: USA, 2020
Actors: Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Olivia Hendrickm, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard, Brandon Fryman