Set at the height of the videotape era, Rent-a-Pal stars Brian Landis Folkins as David, a lonely man in his early-40s who looks after his dementia-suffering mother full-time. Seeking some respite from the drudgery of his life, David enrols in a video dating service, and spends hour after hour watching dating tapes, making careful notes in order to submit his matches.
On a visit to the agency, who fleece him for money every time he steps through the door, David acquires a discount tape called Rent-a-Pal, whose host Andy (a suitably-creepy Wil Wheaton) promises to be your new best friend. David begins to spend more and more time with Andy, rewinding the tape for a fresh conversation (which, of course, are all the same conversation), relieving some of loneliness his round-the-clock care for his mother has instilled in his life.
Landis Folkins is wonderful as David, a picture of a man trapped by his circumstances and slowly losing his grip on reality as Andy becomes more involved in his life, and when he finally matches with someone at the agency – Amy Rutledge’s Lisa – things do not go as you desperately hope they will.
Written and directed by first-timer Jon Stevenson, Rent-a-Pal’s period setting is never played for laughs or empty nostalgia, and the situation David finds himself in is applicable to more technologically-advanced eras. Stevenson imbues the piece with a claustrophobic and psychological malaise, and his stylistic choices only add to the portrait of a man on the edge of a breakdown.
Rent-a-Pal is an understated gem, and deserves a huge audience for all its principals, dealing with a subject that is rarely touched upon by mainstream cinema.