RENT-A-PAL ***** USA 2020 Dir: Jon Stevenson. 108 mins
Set in 1990, the feature debut for writer-director Jon Stevenson offers nostalgia-inducing, almost fetishistic images of the mechanics of a VHS top loader. Albeit within a narrative propelled by a reminder of the days when society’s loners would attempt to forge relationships via pre-recorded tapes of potential mates.
It would be easy to mock the film’s protagonist or portray him as a one-note caricature. He lives the cliché of the 40-year-old virgin living in the basement of his mom’s house. But this Denver-based 40-year-old, David, is written with care and portrayed with heart and soul by an outstanding Brian Landis Folkins. We first see him fast-forwarding through the giggly bimbos and rubbish ventriloquists on offer from his latest selection of “Video Rendezvous” tapes. Living on his mom’s social security, his entire life pivots around caring for the 73-year-old Lucille (Kathleen Brady), whose demeanour turns on a dime thanks to the ravages of dementia. Most of the time she thinks David is her long-dead husband. David’s sincere efforts to capture his kind, caring persona on camera are scuppered by the 30 second time frame in which he has to make a good impression for Video Rendezvous’ small female client base.
The title refers to a tape David rents for uncomplicated man-to-man companionship in between tending to his mother or being patronised by the Rendezvous staff as he desperately waits for news of a match. Recommended by Regis and Kathy, “Rent-A-Pal” has the chipper Andy (Wil Wheaton) offering flattery, bad jokes, conversation starters and support – all via carefully prepared responses for God’s Lonely Man. Andy is so attuned to the needs of his target audience he even incorporates a sexy anecdote for a masturbation opportunity.
Nominally a horror film in its detailed account of one good man’s descent into horrific actions, this is mostly a heart-breaking study of alienation. Wheaton, with a suitably horrible sweater and a demeanour that subtly becomes more insidious as his limited pre-recorded responses take on increasingly fraught new significance, is a truly original “monster”, despite all his scenes being experienced second hand on a fuzzy analogue TV set watched by David. The deepest “horror” of RENT-A-PAL is in watching David spill his most painfully personal secrets to the nearest thing he has to a friend. An awful, scarring experience with a girl at school seemingly guaranteed a lifetime of (at best) deeply dysfunctional or failed relationships with women. Stevenson documents David’s decline in a humane, often harrowing fashion: an excruciating fulfilment of that age-old male fear (Mother catching you masturbating) is used not for queasy laughs but for an almost unwatchably sad sequence in which the caught-in-the-act embarrassment results in Lucille reliving her husband’s tragic death as if it had just happened.
This portrait of a man who puts his own happiness second to the care of a woman who was often unkind before she got sick, is intimate to the point of voyeuristic unease, but it’s never less than empathetic. It never condescends: we may laugh uncomfortably at embarrassing moments to which we can relate, but we root for David wholeheartedly, particularly his tentative relationship with another compassionate, lonely Rendezvous customer, Lisa (a nicely judged turn from Amy Rutledge). The believably awkward but touching union of these lonely souls proves a bridge to the inevitable. The denouement is harrowing, as expected, though also almost a blessed release from the tension of the build up as we watch David’s gradual psychological decline. Dominated by Folkins’ portrayal of one of horror’s most moving mother-dominated loners, Robinson’s film may follow a trend for wallowing in 80s culture, but its powerful portrait of loneliness has never felt so relevant.
Review by Steven West