Rent-A-Pal ★★★

Now this one's interesting. A 40-year old caregiver, who lives in the basement of his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother's house, uses a VHS dating service to try and find a hook-up to assuage the loneliness that's consuming him from the inside. At his lowest ebb he stumbles across a VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal and what begins a curiosity develops into a toxic and unhealthy relationship that threatens to destabilize his already tenuous grip on reality.

The film does a good job of subverting your expectations - when we first see David FFwing through Love Rendezvous auditionees I think we naturally assume it's with sinister purpose, but he's not there yet. It takes an unlikely bond with Rent-A-Pal's Andy to really push him over the edge. David's mother and love interest Amy are well-played by Kathleen Brady and Amy Rutledge respectively but this is Brian Landis Folkins's moment in the limelight and he grasps the nettle with a believable, nuanced portrayal of a loner who is both creepy and relatable. It's also a great physical performance. In an inspired piece of casting, Wil Wheaton brings the crazy magnificently as Andy; a disturbing virtual presence throughout, his moods fluctuating with the tracking.

Despite being set in 1990 - and the attention to detail is excellent, costuming and set dressing evoking the era flawlessly without being too in yer face about it - the film's concerns with dangerous isolation and unhealthy addiction feel contemporary. There's something of a disconnect though; you're expected to believe that someone could become so obsessed with a video playback that never changes to the point where he's convinced it's talking to him on a personal level. You could read it symbolically, but the general tone of downbeat realism discourages that. As a warning about full-time caregivers' need to look after their own mental health though, it's a film with a message. It just means some level of cognitive dissonance is required on the part of the viewer to make it work. The pacing also seems a bit off, the escalation to madness is slow and insidious for the most part, making the conclusion, which brings it back into the genre fold, somewhat perfunctory. I almost feel like it might have been better served maintaining a certain ambiguity and staying within the realm of dark drama.

A low-key synth score by Jimmy Weber offsets the period detail nicely, complimented by Scott Park's understated but stylish cinematography. I dunno, I may be underrating this slightly so if it sounds like your kinda thing I'd say give it a whirl. On a side note, it's odd that director Jon Stevenson didn't mention the 80s VHS Rent-A-Friend in Q&A when asked about his sources - it's clearly the origin of Wil Wheaton's pullover-wearing maniac; basically a riff on the idea 'what is Sam was really evil?

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