With a title that sounds like an early nineties silly comedy aimed at kids, Rent-A-Pal couldn't be further from that. This is a dark psychological horror film that features a fantastic lead performance. However, it also feels like it never quite reaches its full potential, largely due to a messy third act that doesn't pay off. Regardless, the film is worth checking out for Brian Landis Folkins.
Folkins plays a lonely 30-something introvert named David who lives in his mom's basement. His mother has dementia and David is her full-time caregiver. He joins a video dating service, the film takes place in 1990 and gets the period details right. He has been at the dating service a while, never finding a match, when he comes across a strange tape titled "Rent-A-Pal." The tape features Andy (Wil Wheaton) who is there to be your friend. As David watches the tape over and over Andy becomes more alive, responding to him with detailed responses.
David could easily be a pathetic figure and in some ways he is but Folkins is able to give him a humanity that shines through. There is a good guy in David but his loneliness is warping him into something more sinister. Andy soon becomes his "best bud" and David becomes wrapped up in spending time with him. When a real match comes along in Lisa (Amy Rutledge), David gets caught in his loyalty to Andy who rages with jealousy over her. It is heartbreaking to watch David throw away a potentially wonderful relationship for something he sees as more stable, if unreal.
Rent-A-Pal seems caught between two different impulses. Folkins and his deeply convincing portrayal of David seem to see this as a tragic tale of loneliness and how it can destroy someone's chance at happiness. Writer, editor, and director Jon Stevenson wants to make a horror film and in the last act pushes violence and terror into the film when it isn't needed. I couldn't help to feel that if the film ended in a quieter way, it would have been more impactful. The bloody finale empties the film of a stronger impact.
Regardless, the film should be seen for Folkins' performance alone. It is truly one of the more memorable portrayals of a lonely guy that I have seen in quite some time. I will remember it far past the issues I had with the film's climax. He carries every minute of the film and makes David into a fully fleshed-out person.