by Hope Madden
What did we do before Tinder?
Back in 1990 there weren’t even online dating sites, let alone handy apps for lonely singles, and David (Brian Landis Folkins) is lonely. He cares for his mother by day and spends evenings in his basement, viewing new VHS tapes from a dating service—a service he’s belonged to for six months without a single match.
When he goes back in to record a new video of his own, David stumbles across a different kind of tape: Rent-A-Pal.
This video doesn’t tempt David with first person accounts of women who won’t be interested in him. No, Andy (Wil Wheaton) is a real friend, even if he is just a recording.
It’s like Blue’s Clues, except it’s aimed at desperately lonely men, which is maybe the creepiest premise I can remember.
From the top loading VCR to the woody wagon, writer/director Jon Stevenson has David clearly defined. Even for 1990, he is behind the times. He’s a loser. But Stevenson doesn’t dismiss David, and he definitely doesn’t mock him. Which is not to say Rent-A-Pal is entirely sympathetic.
Stevenson and Folkins work together to make David a believable, heartbreaking, damaged human being. Were he a caricature of that loser who lives in his mom’s basement, Rent-A-Pal would not pack nearly the wallop it does. Folkins’s layered, vulnerable performance and his character’s evolution are powerful, awful, and awfully relevant.
It’s a pre-internet story of a lonely white guy, easily convinced of his entitlement to everything he wants by another, similar white guy. Thanks to this other voice, so very similar to his own and so very supportive, David’s self-pity turns bitter.
Rent-A-Pal is a cautionary, pre-incel tale of the insidious dangers of blame and entitlement. Driven by a smart script, excellent supporting work (both Amy Rutledge and Kathleen Brady are wonderful), and an unerring lead turn, Rent-A-Pal delivers an alarming kind of origin story.