Review by Sean Boelman
Low-budget, high-concept sci-fi can be a bit hit-or-miss, but Jon Stevenson’s directorial debut Rent-A-Pal uses its simple premise to deliver a darkly funny and chilling thriller. Thanks to excellent performances and a surprisingly poignant story, this is an unexpected and entertaining entry into the genre.
The film follows a lonely bachelor who, fed up with not finding success through a video dating service, finds a strange tape offering him a new companion, initially using it as an escape from his frustrations of caring for his mother but soon forming a dangerous obsession with it. It’s a strange little idea, but Stevenson and his actors approach it with enough sincerity for it to be taken honestly.
Even though this movie is very much set in the 90s, a lot of its ideas have a lot of modern resonance. Replace video dating services with dating apps and you have a commentary on romance in the twenty-first century. The message about how crippling loneliness can be on one’s psyche also comes from a place of honesty and empathy.
One of the things that makes the film work so well is that the characters are super charming. The protagonist is a lovable loser, and it’s easy to get behind his quest to find an outlet to relieve himself of some of the stress of his daily life. And the mysterious personality living within the VHS is intriguing and very much feels like something ripped out of a cheesy videotape.
Of course, the performances go a long way as well. Brian Landis Folkins carries a lot of the movie on his shoulders, selling every bit of emotion even though the story constantly threatens to veer into more ridiculous territory. And Wil Wheaton gives a very fun and hammy performance in his supporting part, bringing a bit of sinister charm to the character.
Admittedly, the film does fall apart a bit in the third act, losing many of the mystery elements and turning into a more straightforward psychological horror-thriller, but the first hour and fifteen minutes or so is extremely strong. The cynical humor that runs through the movie will have many viewers chuckling.
Stevenson also brings an interesting retro style to the film through his costuming and production design. In a way, it almost feels like a wacky B-movie from the 90s, something that you would find browsing through the aisles of the video store. The ambitious finale is a bit of a swing-and-a-miss, though.
Rent-A-Pal is a fun midnight movie, and while it exists in that area where it’s too weird for general audiences but also a bit too conventional for a cult following. Still, for an indie genre film, it’s a lot better than expected.
Rent-A-Pal hits VOD on September 11.