By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton and Kathleen Brady
Written and directed by Jon Stevenson
Much like hearing an unusual word for the first time and then suddenly encountering it at every turn, the global pandemic has powerfully (and understandably!) glommed onto both our conscious and subconscious minds. Faced with a strange and insidious danger, there is a wholly natural tendency to read our current crisis into everything, to gain whatever sliver of control and understanding possible. And so many films and books with extremely tenuous connections to pandemic living will soon be declared to “speak to this moment.” Sometimes this will be an opportunistic marketing scheme; at others it will be rooted in earnestness and hope. And it’s certainly accurate to say the dark, affecting psychological thriller RENT-A-PAL really does–though it could not have been the original intention of writer/director Jon Stevenson–speak to this moment. (Despite being set in 1990!)
David (Brian Landis Folkins) leads a bleak and lonely existence. He’s living off Social Security checks to serve as full-time caretaker for his mother (Kathleen Brady), who has late stage dementia and no longer recognizes him. This situation, unsurprisingly, is not helping his flatlined love life, and so he turns to a VHS dating service–a sort of primitive precursor to the on-line dating craze still a decade off. This outfit, Video Rendezvous, isn’t a good fit–there is an early, quite beautiful scene in which David gives a heartfelt two-minute soliloquy about the nature of commitment and love for his taped introduction to female clients, only to be curtly told to cut it down to a superficial 30 seconds–but it’s the only game in town. When the proverbial crickets get depressingly loud, David purchases a VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal, featuring a slightly sinister version of Mr. Rogers named Andy (Wil Wheaton), who speaks directly to the camera and holds a one-sided anodyne conversation with the watcher, pausing ostentatiously for responses he can’t hear.
Or can he?
The longer David watches, the more Andy seems to inexplicably be actually engaging him from the television screen. An improbable friendship forms, one that at first draws David out of his shell and empowers him. When he becomes bold enough to capture the attention of a sweet young lady named Lisa (Amy Rutledge), however, his new digitized friend becomes infuriated and possessive, scuttling the chummy “pal” vibe and inciting a series of increasingly brutal events that will leave considerable tragedy and bloodshed in its wake. The philosophical question here is whether David was pushed over the edge by Andy or if, betrayed by life, he was simply seeking a reason to jump.
So why is RENT-A-PAL relevant to us in 2020, three decades after the film’s events take place? There are a couple of reasons: First, quarantine should have made us all keenly aware of how difficult and painful life in isolation can truly be for those, like David, who live this way all the time. One of the great strengths of RENT-A-PAL is the time, care and nuance Stevenson’s script and Folkins bring to David’s frighteningly unremarkable ostracization from society. (Wheaton, predictably, brings his own more amped arc to vivid life as well.) If, as Thoreau averred, the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” RENT-A-PAL demonstrates for us–in much the same way COVID-inspired isolation should have–why we need to develop greater empathy for those left behind, as well as the dangers of failing to do so.
The second reason is that, in times of high-stress isolation and social flux, it is, as RENT-A-PAL makes disturbingly clear, essential to beware of those bearing offers of easy salvation. It’s difficult not to see Andy as a magnified contemporary of the modern-day television talking heads that peddle simple solutions to complex problems–and scapegoat some “other” whenever those solutions inevitably fail to pan out. Yes, it’s great to have someone possessing some degree of ostensible authority on your side, but it is in times of our greatest fear and vulnerability that it is most important to ask, “At what cost?” In this respect, the David-Andy dynamic is a cautionary tale for all of us attempting to navigate pandemic life. A turn into depravity, alas, is often less a lurch over a chasm than a couple of steps in the wrong direction.
RENT-A-PAL takes a slow-burn approach to building dread and exploring the human condition. There isn’t a lot of kinetic action here, just highly skilled performers deftly building a world that is uncomfortably believable and a little too close to the one we currently inhabit–and urging us, in their own distant yet potent manner, not to make the same mistakes they have made. And after watching the film, you very well may have a deeper, more intense understanding of the stakes involved.