There is no way writer/director Jon Stevenson could have possibly known how topical Rent-A-Pal would be. While certain aspects of the plot may feel far fetched and intentionally dated, the yearning for connection and finding that on a screen is now more potent than ever.
David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a pretty lonely guy. Living in his mom’s basement at 40 years old is hardly a panty-soaker, and he knows it. But his situation is not without context. His mother (Kathleen Brady) has dementia and cannot live on her own. In fact, she can barely even be left on her own except for his quick trips to town. Brian’s father passed away years ago so it is just the two of them in that house living off of her social security checks. It seems that the one teeny sliver of hope David has is in finding a girlfriend through his video dating service.
It being 1990, the video dating process means recording an introduction and picking up physical VHS tapes from the dating agency in hopes of seeing someone you like who happens to like you back. It is not too far removed from our current dating apps, but it is expensive and seems to move in slow motion. David tries recording a new intro video and pays for the next set of tapes with potential matches, and grabs a copy of “Rent-A-Pal” along with his stack.
“Rent-A-Pal” is different from these dating tapes. It is not an audition, but rather a recorded, one-sided conversation with someone who desperately wants to be your friend. Andy (Wil Wheaton) smiles, asks you about yourself, and tells stories about his life. He seems to care, and wants to get to know you, even though that is clearly just clever timing on his part. He even plays go fish. David is skeptical at first and dismissive, but soon Andy is his obsession and their friendship means the world to him. Aside from his quest for a mate and taking care of his difficult mother, Andy is the most exciting part of David’s life.
Herein is the deep tragedy of Rent-A-Pal. Though the film eventually leans into the more diabolical parts of David’s mind, which seem to be exploited and awakened by Andy, this is fundamentally a story about a very lonely and sensitive man. He takes good care of his mother before Andy, and is actively working on changing things for himself. He loses his temper on occasion and indulges in porn from time to time, but who doesn’t? David is framed nearly entirely as a man desperate for connection and affection, and any demise from that standing feels like punching down.
Stylistically, Rent-A-Pal leans into the aesthetics of the late 80s and early 90s. The score is a synth-heavy presence which helps set the mood of the time. Seeing the hairstyles of the potential dates, as well as the few nicer outfits David wears, are good representations of what that era actually looked like, and not what kids these days think it did.
Seeing the relationship develop between Andy and David is a marvel of editing and tight scripting. You might think that Rent-A-Pal would be completely absurdist or toy with the idea that Andy somehow is more than just a VHS, but it does neither. Through some incredibly smart structuring of Andy’s side of the conversation we can see that he never changes, but that David’s relationship to him morphs into something perverse and unhealthy. His interaction with Andy, if you can call it that, evolves, but that evolution is entirely in the world outside the TV screen.
Nowadays, cultivating and nurturing relationships through screens is a daily occurrence. While we get to instead interact with real people through our screens, that deep desire to connect to others when feeling lonely or isolated is more germane than ever. Everyone wants to feel seen, and feel love, and the way that David connects those dots might not be healthy, but they are understandable.
A heartbreakingly tragic story of loneliness and fractured friendship, Rent-A-Pal is packaged in a teasingly superficial plot of a man gone mad.