Jon Stevenson creates an intriguing debut with a disturbing relationship between man and videotape.

How far are you willing to go for a friend? That’s the question posed in new thriller, Rent-A-Pal. David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a 40-year-old loner who has a duty of care to his dementia-ridden mother, Lucille (Kathleen Brady). Essentially homebound like his mother, his only interaction with society is through renting Video Rendezvous dating videotapes – but when David finds a mysterious ‘Rent-a-Pal’ tape in the bargain bin, he begins a friendship with new pal Andy (Wil Wheaton) that threatens to consume him entirely.

This is the feature debut from Jon Stevenson, who serves as director, writer and editor. It’s certainly an impressive first entry, with the editing and sound design both standing out. The flashy opening titles of vibrant VHS design against a dread-bearing rock score creates a strangely malicious tone, which is a great way to immediately make the audience aware of the presence of videotapes throughout the film. As we explore the inner workings of the VHS player against one of the girl’s intros, we’re reminded of the cold and strangely unsettling nature of these recordings – sitting alone, in an incredibly bare studio while someone watches on silently, as you’re forced to present your entire life in concise sound-bites.

As the film develops, Folkins manages to avoid the typical cringeworthy lonely romantic set-up, marrying together clear character structure within the writing and his own clear understanding of who David is. There’s a deep initial sympathy to David – his duty of care to his mother, as well as his need for connection with someone else because of his self-imposed responsibility – is a paradox that many caregivers often find themselves in. Folkins displays this hopelessness and desperation to create a deep-rooted emotional connection with the audience – you truly feel as though David is trying to do whatever he can to create a life whilst still anchored to his mother.

The aesthetics of the Rent-a-Pal box is key to understanding David and Andy’s relationship – when we first see it, the box-art harkens back to ’60s family sitcom aesthetic. It suggests an inviting and friendly appearance, which causes David to shunt off the outdated and strange nature of the tape itself. It most likely plays to his child-like nostalgia, as there is a strong emotional connection consistently established with video tapes throughout the film – for Lucille it’s memories, while for David it’s relationships. When Andy is introduced it addresses not only David, but the audience too, almost as though he is aware of what exists beyond the film, creating a powerful implication of his own abilities.

Sound design is also exceptional, highlighting clear creative direction and intent with the use of every noise, from the background static to the shunting and clunking of videotapes. Sound is a key aspect of understanding who David is, with subtle shifts in his link to the tapes presented through the clarity of the tape’s audio, which becomes clearer as David is increasingly captivated by what he sees. The sound design really shines during the film’s climax to create a truly terrifying moment, backed by Folkin’s unhinged presence, a sequence best experienced without any sort of spoilers.

The conversations between Andy and David are great examples of Stevenson relaying his prior cinematographic knowledge – first seen with a reverse shot that subtly implies real dialogue is being exchanged rather than a simple pre-recorded script. It tricks not only David, but the viewer, into believing that Andy is able to respond without actually having to break the film’s own ‘rules’. As David begins his parasocial relationship, he begins to abide by the tape in contrast to his own reality – when the tape believes he has a 4 in the Go Fish card game, he puts down a 5 to extend the tape’s continuity. As David’s grip on reality starts to loosen, the tape shows greater corruption and audio distortion, eventually starting to consume him. There’s a pivotal moment that marks the first true break in reality – Andy managing to tease and interfere with his victim’s sexual gratification. So begins the most complex aspect of the film.

Rent-A-Pal deals with some complex and difficult themes – loneliness, idolatry, abuse and familial relationships. It’s clear that David is a tortured character with a very complicated past, and understanding his fragile mental state is key, as it outlines his malleability to control. One of the few moments of joy comes in meeting Lisa (Amy Rutledge), and their date at the roller rink. When the date is over, David screams with happiness in his car, in a scene that will feel relatabale to many. Battling loneliness and isolation, or mental illness, is extremely difficult, so even tiny victories such as meeting someone new, or breaking your monotonous cycle can feel monolithic. Stevenson specifically places this at the mid-point of the film to show the potential of an alternate future for David, suggesting his fate is not pre-determined and can be changed.

The central conflict of Rent-A-Pal is to what extent is Andy actually sentient, and to what extent is David slowly losing his mind? It’s something we are constantly having to assess, with Stevenson blurring the lines to keep us guessing throughout. It slowly creeps up on the viewer to create a sense of confusion and disorientation, adding to the excitement of a well-crafted debut.

Rent-A-Pal is available in theatres, and on digital and cable VOD from September 11.

Sabastian Astley

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

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