There is a strange, cyclical nature to the internet. Every few years, the same videos seem to get dug up. An all-time classic is the '80s Video Dating Montage, a video that shows old footage of men trying to explain, poorly, why you should go out with them.
If you watched that video and somehow found yourself wanting to spend nearly two hours learning the inner machinations of one of those awkward fellows, well, I've got a film that does just that. It's called Rent-A-Pal and it'll drag you into the morbid world of a loner living in the '90s.
Rent-A-Pal is a character study masquerading as a thriller. The feature debut from writer and director Jon Stevenson focuses on 40-year-old David, an isolated man who spends most of his waking moments caring for his ailing mother who has dementia. To overcome his loneliness, he tries to put himself out there by joining a dating service where he must make a recorded pitch.
He doesn't get many responses, and it quickly becomes clear why he lives with his mother.
While dejected, David finds a VHS tape of a bizarre program that features a maniacally happy host named Andy (Wil Wheaton) who pledges to be his friend. Andy will play cards, make jokes, and attempt to chat with David. Think of a call-and-response Dora the Explorer—if she became almost demonic.
David soon develops an obsession with the program. He watches it for hours on end. The winding tape's sound becomes a constant buzzing, and the host's cheery voice warps to become sinister and otherworldly. The film's sound design is a genuinely scary experience.
Regrettably, the script is not.
To be fair, David is not a sympathetic character. He's pitiful. He needs help and won't get it, and the story doesn't flinch at making it clear that David is lost. But the film ends up hitting the same narrative beats over and over until it pushes a runtime of nearly two hours.
Rent-A-Pal takes itself quite seriously—too seriously—and plays most of the film with a straight face. David’s interactions with his mother are downright depressing. As we learn more of his family's backstory, things get increasingly upsetting.
The real exciting part of the film is the nature of the tape. Is Andy responding to David directly? At moments it seems like he may be. At others, it seems coincidental—a creation of David's mind. Sadly, the film loses its plot, and the ambiguous question ends up feeling noncommittal.
Maybe it would have excelled if it was a more reasonable hour-and-a-half.