Every once in a while, a film comes along – often with little fanfare – that just completely floors you. It could be a cerebral sci-fi from Benson & Moorhead or a thought-provoking drama from the other side of the world, or maybe, it could be a chilling tale of a lonely man discovering a mysterious VHS tape. Yes, Jon Stevenson’s Rent-A-Pal is that film – and I am so grateful to the folks over at Lightbulb Film Distribution for giving it a much-deserved audience in the UK.
It’s the year 1990 and Brian Landis Folkins is David, a tortured single man living with, and caring for, his ailing mother (Kathleen Brady). His only escape from his bleak existence is the VHS tapes he receives from a dating service of women who would never match with him. When he returns to the service to update his video in the hopes of impressing a potential partner, he stumbles across a mysterious tape – the titular Rent-A-Pal – promising friendship. Returning home to boot up the tape, he is greeted onscreen by virtual friend Andy (Stand by Me’s Wil Wheaton) who begins to consume David’s life…
To give away any more of the plot would threaten to detract from the film’s power, but suffice to say, Rent-A-Pal takes some dark and unsuspected turns. Feeling almost like a companion piece – and certainly a superior film – to the recent DC Oscar-darling Joker, the film is at its core a disturbing character study of the effects of loneliness on one tortured, damaged man. Folkins’ complex and vulnerable performance of David is remarkable, lending an oddly sympathetic layer to this tragic individual which makes his more intense scenes all the more frightening. He is an absolute revelation and, really, should be in awards consideration for his performance. Wheaton is equally memorable as the titular pal himself, with his oft-sinister presence felt throughout the film despite being confined to the inside of David’s basement television. Supporting work from Kathleen Brady as David’s mother and Amy Rutledge as the doomed love interest are also deserving of praise.
Flawlessly directed, written and edited by Jon Stevenson in his feature debut, the remarkable Rent-A-Pal is both a harrowing snapshot of a tortured soul and a cautionary tale about the effects of loneliness and abuse. It is a dark and disturbing film, but one that is endlessly compelling and thought-provoking. Fronted by two flawless performances, stellar direction and a terrific script, Rent-A-Pal is a gem destined for cult status.
Rent-A-Pal: Available On Demand Now from: Sky Store, Amazon Prime and Apple TV (iTunes)