David is your average lonely guy. He lives with his elderly mother, who calls him by his father’s name. He takes care of her (and watches old Cary Grant flicks with her) and the small neighborhood home they inhabit. He’s also subscribed to a retro version of Tinder, where your dating profile is recorded onto VHS tapes and sent to members of the opposite sex, and has yet to find a match. When he goes to a studio to update his “dating profile,” his ability to summarize his life is cut down by the man behind the camera. As we see the whirring of the old machine, we get a sense of how industrialized this service that is meant to be helping people has become. It’s a quick commentary on something that has taken over the lives of many singles, and delivering it through the lens of this retrofitted world makes writer-director Jon Stevenson’s opposition to its domination of our lives concrete and easier to understand without feeling like a soapbox sermon on screen fatigue.
This is the world of Rent-A-Pal, an anachronistic blend of ‘90s technology and modern social trends, where David lives vicariously through the VHS tapes in his basement. David is not an incel by urban dictionary definition, but the film hinges on whether or not he will become one when his life begins to fall apart. Things escalate when David finds a new tape to watch. The titular Rent-A-Pal, featuring Wil Wheaton as Andy, who’s here to be your friend. Andy is a bit of a Fred Rogers type, only he’s not here to teach children about the world, he’s here to reach the men on the verge of cracking. David at first responds halfheartedly and sarcastically to the tape, until Andy finally shares the story of his mother, the sound mixing on Wheaton’s voice changing as David suddenly becomes much more invested in what the man on the tape has to say. It’s an intimate and disrupting “conversation,” but David stops the tape before it gets too far in.
As critic Nick Allen put it, “the movie is a fight for David’s soul.” So let’s talk about David. Brian Landis Folkins plays the character with grace, naivety, and vulnerability. Even through the confines of the television, Andy sees that David is a figure that can be easily molded. It’s why he made the tape, after all. Stevenson and Folkins take David’s arc in some strange directions, but it’s clear that Stevenson has faith in him. A subplot finds David finally finding a match—a woman just as held back by her work as David is. The chemistry between the two of them is genuinely sweet without Folkins ever feeling like he’s playing out of character. But Andy’s influence on him continues to creep in just as this woman comes into his life. If you’ve ever seen Innuendo Studios’ Alt-Right Playbook or Dan Olson’s recent video essay “In Search of a Flat Earth,” you’ll learn that no one starts out like Andy, and a lot of people start out like David. There was someone before Andy that made him who he is, and Andy is passing on the torch of misogyny and self-absorption to his victim under the guise of friendship and guidance. Andy empowers David only to keep him sheltered away when things finally begin to look up for him, and Wheaton’s performance and the camerawork around it is so magnificent that the rare occasions where Andy’s tape encompasses the entirety of the frame are spine tingling. As the film goes on and Andy’s tape becomes more surreal in how it directly reacts to David’s actions, our hero is truly haunted by someone he looked to for a friend.
David is one bad day away from Falling Down territory, and as his inevitable descent comes, the film loses a substantial amount of weight. The radicalization of David is certainly believable, but it’s demonstrated in a way that’s tougher to get behind as a viewer. The danger of online communities finding and converting innocent people into monsters hidden behind anonymous profile pictures (or the even bolder types) isn’t that they’ll become uncontrollably violent in real life. Far beyond that: the tragedy of it is that these people have well established careers and families and simply believe that Trump is doing everything to stop a secret ring of pedophilic elite, and that they are unwilling to listen to anyone about the real elite corruption because it forces them to see the world as more complicated than “President good, everyone else bad.” The film doesn’t address the scariest thing about the modern world, that people can iron out their hateful vitriol online and coexist in the real world, their hatred implicit and controlling the people around them. The retrofitting makes it near impossible for the film to operate on that level of nuance, but it’s so close to greatness throughout that the ending feels more anticlimactic than anything else. Rent-A-Pal is still quite the fascinating trip, even though it falls short before the credits roll. Despite some grievances, it’s worth a rental for the performances alone.