Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Wheaton is excellent as the twee yet sinister Andy." | Photo: IFC Films

The women on the videotape look ordinary but nice, trying to present their best selves, but the way they talk about the kind of men they're looking for makes them seem hopelessly beyond David's reach. All except the last one, perhaps. She seems kind, approachable, simply for someone who will love and be there for her. Then she laughs and says that of course, he mustn't live in his parents' basement.

Life for David (Brian Landis Folkins) has been lonely for a long time. He doesn't have much choice about where he lives given that he's a carer for his 73-year-old-mother (Kathleen Brady), who can't be left alone for long even on a good day because of the suddenness with which her behaviour can change. Even when she's doing well, she mistakes him for his dead brother, compounding his sense of loss, and on bad days she can't hold a conversation at all. All he really wants is somebody to talk to - even if it's just the staff at the video dating agency. Then one day, when he's there, he spots a tape in the bargain bin beside the counter: Rent-A-Pal.

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Can talking to a stranger on a tape, answering questions, filling in gaps in conversation, be like talking to somebody in real life? David feels silly doing it at first, as you'd expect, but perhaps it's better than nothing. And then slowly, something starts to shift. He becomes more and more obsessed by the 'friendship' offered by Any (Wil Wheaton), the man on the tape, to the point where - when a real life opportunity comes his way - we start to wonder which one he'll choose.

Writer/director Jon Stevenson walks a very fine line here, keeping us guessing as to what's going on. Something feels amiss about the tape from the start, but by the time we're getting hints that it might be something supernatural, David's mental health has deteriorated to the point where he's no longer a reliable witness. Professional caregiver Lisa (Amy Rutledge) warns that untrained people who become carers by accident often don't get the space that they need to take care of themselves, and that this can lead them to experience crises of their own. Is this what is happening to David, or is something else going on?

Wheaton is excellent as the twee yet sinister Andy, with his neatly trimmed beard and stripey jumper, his exaggerated sympathetic expressions and his laughter that easily tips over into cruelty. His "I'm just messing with you," and his explicit stories about past girlfriends illustrate a strain of masculinity not nearly as harmless as his warm smile would have you think. David is a man whose path through life has been defined by women and this is new, dangerous territory for him. Intentionally or not, Andy is awakening emotions that David doesn't know how to handle, drawing out an anger incompatible with a carer's role.

Folkins brings a tenderness to his character that elevates him above familiar basement-dwelling stereotypes and keeps us hoping that something will go right for him - but perhaps it's hope, too, that suddenly makes his situation unbearable. Though the ending lacks the finesse of other parts of the film, this is, overall, an astute portrait of life on the margins, taking in the real horrors of many people's otherwise invisible day to day reality. It reflects a trend in modern horror to seek creative ways of exploring commonplace human suffering. Despite is grim mood, it packs in some sharp satire about the self-help and dating industries along the way.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2020
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Rent-A-Pal packshot
A lonely carer looking for love becomes obsessed by a videotape featuring a man who offers to be his friend.

Director: Jon Stevenson

Writer: Jon Stevenson

Starring: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady

Year: 2020

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Grimmfest 2020

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