Connecting with fellow-humans through technology was a cumbersome business in the analog ‘80s. There were no dating apps, because there were no apps; no FaceTiming, because there were no smartphones. There was no smart anything. This was the era of tube televisions and VCRs. Everything whirred and hummed and practically wheezed from wear-and-tear.
Yet the desire to communicate, face to face, through one’s electronic devices was no less prominent for the early adopters of the era’s tech vanguard—adopters such as David (Brian Landis Folkins), the lonely shut-in of Jon Stevenson’s uneven but intriguing 1990-set thriller “Rent-A-Pal.”
Kind and compassionate but awkward, David is what few prospective bachelorettes would call a prime catch. He lives in the basement of his elderly, demented mother (Kathleen Brady), and he serves as her full-time caregiver, finding infrequent solace in old movies and escaping his house only for visits to Video Rendezvous, a local video dating service, where he records 30-second personal ads, hoping to be matched with a like-minded lonely heart.
On one such visit, his eye catches a tape in the company’s discount bin: “Rent-a-Pal,” promising friendship in VHS form, and boasting a blurb on the back of the cassette from Regis and Kathie Lee. Desperate for any companionship, he takes it home.
The result is a surreal yet plausible relic of the primitive video age, featuring a friendly and empathetic fellow named Andy (cult actor and writer Wil Wheaton) addressing his unseen viewers from a stage-y living room. He strikes up a conversation with David, compliments his living spaces, shares personal anecdotes of past struggles, and leaves plenty of dead air for his new “friend” to speak. And he returns the dialogue with occasionally eerie accuracy, as if he’s actually listening through time and space. Could it be so, or is “Andy” simply an expertly designed algorithm written by people who know their lonely male audience?
The more David watches the tape, the more he forms a genuine bond. Andy serves as David’s talk therapist, his confidant, his card partner (their attempt to play Go Fish is one of the movie’s driest comedic scenes). And after countless viewings of the tape, David takes to reciting his partner’s lines from memory and timing his own responses to perfectly coincide with Andy’s retorts. It’s creepy but not destructive—until David meets Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a flesh-and-blood match from the dating service, and Andy, ever the collection of codependent pixels, seems to sabotage this threat to their friendship.
If “Black Mirror” were around at the dawn of the ‘90s, this is the kind of cautionary tale that would pique its showrunner’s interest. “Rent-A-Pal” explores technology addiction at its most pernicious. Like “Her,” it reveals how ones and zeroes can, in skillful hands, foster the illusion of empathy and comprehension. The 21st century viewer cannot help but relate its embryonic forms of telecommunication with the fully formed operating systems and talking companions whose guidance we slavishly follow today. This is the balancing act “Rent-A-Pal” walks—it revels in nostalgia, fetishizing in the retrograde mechanisms that make VCRs work, while doubling as a critique of the zeitgeist at a time when many more of us have become solitary hermits, talking to everybody through screens.
The film falters, though, in its final act, by jettisoning its intriguing subtleties for an over-the-top descent into horror. I love frightening surprises as much as the next viewer, but the tonal turn of “Rent-A-Pal” is jarring and inconsistent, the result of a scorched-earth cynicism that I simply did not buy. And it’s where the “Black Mirror” compliment falls apart, proving once again that, even in these surreal times, crafting a flawless and compact dystopian commentary is harder than it looks.
“Rent-A-Pal” opens today at IPIC Theaters in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, and Paradigm Cinemas 5 in Tamarac. It can also be rented at home on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, Google Play or YouTube.