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Year: 2020
Director: Jon Stevenson
Stars: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sarah Woodyard, Brandon Fryman
Genre: Horror, Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: David (Brian Landis Folkins) doesn't want much out of life, he has a roof over his head, he has enough to eat, but he is living on social security as he is a full-time carer for his elderly mother (Kathleen Brady) which means he just doesn't get out of the house as much as he should. To stave off his loneliness, he has signed up for a video dating service, where clients go along to their studio, record a little bit about themselves, and allow the company to make the video available to potential dates. He is certainly interested in some of them, but there's always something in their clips that puts him off: something that wouldn't match with him, or a putdown about the kind of person they want (or don't want) that hits too close to home. Maybe he just needs a pal...

Rent-A-Pal started out as a comedic drama, satirising the kind of go nowhere, dead end existence of its hapless protagonist as he pathetically tries to make a connection with a woman who could care about him, not having completely given up hope but, as we see from his choice of dating service, merely being exploited for his solitary situation for the money he hands over for the VHS cassettes. This was set some time in the eighties, it was not exactly specific, but that better capitalised on the appeal of those plastic boxes of magnetic tape which in that decade promised to provide all the entertainment - and even companionship - the viewer could want. But there's a problem when the viewer comes to twig that this is no substitute for a real person to interact with.

David cannot interact with his mother except on a superficial level because she suffers dementia, and is not meeting anyone else (we see him futilely trying to make a friendly connection with the dating service receptionist, but she's having none of it), so when his eyes alight on one of those self-help tapes, he snaps it up. This is called Rent-A-Pal, and features a friendly chap called Andy (Wil Wheaton) who chats away, leaving pauses for the viewer to respond, simulating a conversation. If by this point in the story you're tearing up at David's useless, hopeless situation, then that appeared to be the motive for writer and director (and editor) Jon Stevenson), to leave you as depressed as possible at spending time in the company of the type of man, forgotten by society, possibly shunned by it, who would not normally find his days so coldly scrutinised, either by the audience or other characters.

There was a curious mixture of sympathy for David and a need to punish him for not fitting in with anybody in the wider world's idea of success, and that manufactured a genuine tension as we are aware this is categorised as a horror movie. We find out why gradually: Andy begins to interact with him, and we don't know if the isolation has driven David round the bend, or whether there was a more sinister outside force trying to push him over the edge for its own diabolical amusement. Every time the film offered him a chance to make a few steps to improvement, it slapped him down, whether because of his surroundings or his own unravelling psyche, so when that miracle occurs, and a kind, understanding woman, Lisa (Amy Rutledge), answers his tape and they hit it off, we can only cringe horribly as David ruins everything that could have made him better. Is it Andy, or whatever Andy represents, that forces his hand? We don't find out, but one thing is for sure in this well-made, superbly acted but relentlessly depressing effort: it sure would be nice to see a film about a loser with a happy ending for a change. Music by Jimmy Weber.

[Rent A PAL will be available on Digital Download from 16th November 2020 and can be pre-ordered at this link - click here.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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