Unintentionally or not, Rent-A-Pal is in conversation with last year’s Joker. Both films center on lonely men who take care of their cognitively impaired mothers. Both men turn to television as a reprieve from their constant loneliness, imagining a human connection with the faces they see. Whereas Joker revels in cynical theatrics and nasty violence, Rent-A-Pal deals with the dark impulses of its premise. Director and writer Jon Stevenson never loses his nerve, even during tough scenes that nearly suspend our disbelief. That is thanks to lead actor Brian Landis Folkins, who carries every scene with the weight of a man who was taught he is invisible.
The film is set in 1990, a period where analog is still far more common than digital. Folkins plays David, a forty year old loserwho lives with his seventy-three year old mother (Kathleen Brady). She has dementia and needs full-time care – he repeatedly insists they “get by” on Social Security – but David still wants companionship. He uses a dating service that is essentially an early version of Tinder: he records a VHS of himself and sends it via mail, then receives videos from women who are looking for men. It is no surprise David is not successful: he looks nerdy and awkward, but even if he could clean up, he has no career. In his desperation, he turns to “Rent-A-Pal,” a similar video service, but instead of a potential girlfriend, it’s another man (Wil Wheaton) who pretends to be his friend.
Stevenson carefully builds the friendship between David and Andy. At first, David sees right through Andy’s insecurity: the first time he speaks to his TV set, he calls Andy, “really fucking weird.” There is nothing supernatural, either: Wheaton never appears to David in a fantasy sequence, for example, and remains on a crappy TV set. But then the cycle of desperation and loneliness continues, and Andy encourages David to converse, drink alcohol, and even play cards. It starts to feel normal, to the point where Andy is the only person with whom David can relate. His mother’s erratic behavior keeps him closed off to the world, at least until David has a match with an actual woman named Lisa (Amy Rutledge). Awkward and empathetic, she is more than the victim of his “nice guy” antics.
Like many other low budget thrillers, Stevenson uses his limited means as an opportunity for carefully-observed character work. He knows how to push David, using emotional beats and awkward silences to fill the holes until, finally, talking to Andy is a comfort. This material has rich allegorical subtext: we are also transfixed by our screens and social media relationships, and while our devices are much more sophisticated, both fill the same emotional hole. What makes Rent-A-Pal interesting is that it follows a relationship between two men, and not a woman on a 1-900 number. This conceit means that David invests more of himself in Andy, confessing things he probably never told another soul. The film suggests that kind of dependence is harder to shake than anything romantic or sexual.
There is always an edge to Rent-A-Pal, and Stevenson never quite lets a scene play like you might expect. One strange complication is Andy’s “script.” At first, it contains nothing but platitudes and pleasantries, then he starts to build resentment and misogyny as a common interest. Maybe David is hallucinating these videos, except one-sided codependency is a shrewd way to assure he keeps buying the tapes. That same off-kilter applies to the subplot with Lisa, where Stevenson pushes them closer toward happiness than we might expect. All that delicate writing leads to an intense climax, punctuated by violence but still in service of character.
After mostly appearing in short films, Brian Landis Folkins makes a ferocious, achingly honest feature debut. Forget about Joaquin Phoenix and Joker for a moment. Folkins belongs alongside the loners we have seen in Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and especially the forgotten Big Fan. There is no apology in these performances, nor any sense of affectation. What he have instead is courage, the sort of unwavering performance where every choice, no matter how painful or destructive, has a ring of truth to it. Let Phoenix cackle endlessly and indulge in one too many slow motion dance sequences. If Folkins gets a fraction of the attention he deserves, he may become one of our great character actors.
Rent-A-Pal is available on VOD platforms staring September 11.