"Rent-A-Pal" is an intriguing indie movie by Jon Stevenson, a young director who makes his living working as a cinematographer and camera operator on other people's films, and a group of similarly employed college buddies basically working on their days off. It was filmed in 2018 and 2019 and is probably getting a theatrical release because covid-19 interrupted the flow of higher-profile product to theaters.
If so, that's one of the few consolations the pandemic offers.
It's set in pre-internet 1990 and revolves around a basement-dwelling unemployed incel named David (a fine performance by Brian Landis Folkins, a veteran of regional theater and bit parts getting his first crack at a big movie role) who so longs for human connection that he falls under the spell of a VHS cassette called "Rent-A-Pal," which features a warmly charismatic preppy host named Andy (Wil Wheaton, typecast as the fighting young normie priest who can talk to the nerd kids) who offers pleasant homilies that change slightly whenever David alters his response.
It's an interesting premise that lands somewhere between David Cronenberg's classic body horror show "Videodrome" and those electronic press kits that allow TV stations to insert their own talking heads asking the canned questions the celebrity answers.
When Andy becomes sinister, which you know he will because the film is distributed by IFC Midnight, the film is really more character-driven than plot-driven. Given that David and Andy are interacting via an old-school TV tube, it's remarkable that they seem to develop a real rapport.
It's also gratifying that David isn't just some nerdy boring bachelor -- he is forced to care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother (Kathleen Brady). Freed of these responsibilities, he might have a shot at developing a mutually rewarding relationship with compassionate Lisa (Amy Rutledge), whom he meets through an online dating service and who threatens his relationship with jealous Andy.
Casting Wheaton is reportedly a key to getting this movie financed, and he's terrific as smarmy Andy, a pastel-washed passive-aggressive counselor about two clicks removed from credible reality.
Similarly, Folkins keeps David rooted to a recognizable reality, even as the weirdness around him escalates. There are a couple of wonderfully played scenes between this lonely, awkward man and his mother; and the tender tension between David and Lisa is heartbreakingly plausible.
For such a high concept idea, "Rent-A-Pal" is rooted in concrete detail and emotional truth, at least until the third act, when it devolves into predictable violence.
All that said, it seems unlikely "Rent-A-Pal" will strike much of a chord with horror fans, as it's plainly more concerned with producing the textures and atmosphere of its period than with jump scares and gore. It's a cerebral movie-brat kind of film that makes a virtue of its shot-on-video flatness and privileges the performances of its principal actors, all of whom get a chance to shine.
Still, there's not much there beyond its evocation of its characters, and one imagines that Stevenson and his confederates saw it as more of a chance to demonstrate what they could do with a reasonable budget and a regular shooting schedule.
Under the circumstances, getting any movie to the screen is an accomplishment; that they've made something this strangely compelling is a minor miracle.
87 Cast: Wil Wheaton, Brian Landis Folkins, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady
Director: Jon Stevenson
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing theatrically and available on-demand from streaming services.