Column by Philip Perron
Technology has slowly opened sores within the world today. Not things like microwaves or digital music or electric dog fences, but online social media itself has. The missing unassuming norms of bygone days such as wearing ties at work or opening doors for someone (never mind a young lady) may feel innocuous and unnecessary in the big scheme of things, but social media itself has seemed to remove common courtesy in all things: the news, on-line social interactions, and politics. “Let the hate flow through you,” so says the emperor in the Star Wars franchise.
The new movie Rent-A-Pal, directed by jack-of-all-trades Jon Stevenson, takes place in the 1980’s. The internet and social media hadn’t taken off yet, but even in those days problems weren’t all that different. Without on-line technology, folks worked with the equipment they had to solve their own dilemmas.
As the movie begins, we are immediately introduced to David (Brian Folkins), a middle aged man who lives with his mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady). Whether by his personal virtue or just having no other options, he has become a fulltime caretaker for his mother, a 73 year old widow with dementia.
Sadly his identity is that of the stereotypical ill at ease man. With so much of his time focused on his mother’s wellbeing, he has landed up being that adult son that is living in his mother’s basement. With no friends, no profession, and no fashion sense, he appears as if he is going through life with only one unintentional goal – to live each day until he dies. But his setbacks aren’t all encompassing. He does want to grow as a person. He does want friends. He does want female companionship. And unlike a true failure of a man, even with his awkwardness and social anxiety, he is actually out trying to do something about it.
Oddly enough, online dating is just an heir apparent to video dating. And since the film is a period piece, David participates in such a thing. When he isn’t taking care of his mother, he dashes out to the video dating service office. There he records his personal dating video and collects videos made by women that could be a potential match. Unlike the modern Tinder or some other service, the process is a bit slower, but hope is still there.
One day he is notified by the company’s bubbly office manager Diane (Adrian Egolf) of a potential match. Someone liked his video, and her name is Lisa (Amy Rutledge). David quickly heads over to their office only to find that he forgot his credit card needed to pay the regular access fee. Having to return home to retrieve his wallet, he swiftly dashes back to their office.
Unfortunately he finds out that the match with Lisa “timed-out.” In the sixty minutes in between, the young lady has matched with another man. Filled with despair, David picks up a tape from the service entitled Rent-A-Pal; a video that stars a man that identifies himself as Andy (Wil Wheaton).
If there is a villain in this movie, Andy is most certainly it. Unlike digital interactions on-line today, Andy is just a straight movie on a VCR tape. He is dressed presentable in a button down shirt, a tie, and even wears a sweater vest. He immediately introduces himself with pleasantries, and throughout he asks the viewer questions, gives pregnant pauses for their answer, and responds affirmatively with compassion and friendship. When not attending to his mother, David watches the tape relentlessly. He slowly turns from looking at the video as just a way to pass the time to essentially interacting with Andy as a friend; almost like a virtual therapy session.
As the film progresses David begins to memorize Andy’s queues. So when those pregnant pauses do occur, David has timed his responses perfectly making it seem as if Andy and he are actually having an honest interaction together. But the years of social isolation that David has had has perhaps made him susceptible to becoming unsound. As the tape proceeds onward, the kindness that Andy originally shows slowly feels more toxic. Andy’s soliloquies of empathy slowly turn into diatribes filled with resentment against those who have happiness. Misogyny, jealousy, toxic masculinity, and even bullying enter into Andy’s conversation; and yet all of these interactions are very subtle.
The film leaves the viewer wondering whether the Rent-A-Pal tape is indeed subversive. Are the producers of the video and the actor playing Andy being predatory on those lonely souls who would indeed actually watch it? Or are Andy’s later interactions with David simply filtered through the perspective of a man who has a chip on his shoulder and desperate for friendship and love? Audiences will have to make up their own mind.
The film, however, begins to reflect on the world today. As more and more people who are isolated have a gateway to the outside world through social media, the toxicity that surrounds these online cliques can turn such loneliness into resentment and hatred. Of course this phenomenon isn’t new, but the so called “incel” community became vogue because of social media. Incels so defined by Wikipedia (another internet site with its own history of bias and falsehoods) states they are “members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one.”
As the movie advances, we find out that David in fact isn’t an incel for the most part. He eventually connects with Lisa when the dating service says that her other match didn’t work. Lisa now is very interested in meeting him. And when they do go on a date together, they show much in common and an instant attraction. In a scene quite quaint but also heartrending, while pulling out of the parking lot to go home David lets out dozens of primal screams of joy.
But Andy, or what David appears to see in Andy’s video, is most certainly an incel. His later responses in the video try to make David feel guilty that he would rather spend time with Lisa and not him. Whether the video is preying upon David’s weakness from years of isolation and awkwardness, I can not say. But truth or not, any mentally healthy person would simply place the tape away and move on with their life after experiencing the elation of finding a real companion as David has found in Lisa.
So no matter what the tape is, the mental health of David is most certainly in question. Andy, whether malevolent or not, is just a character on a video tape. Unlike modern incel culture, David isn’t talking to a real person who just is separated from him by a computer screen. But those same behavioral health issues that David may have, if placed in the modern era, makes loneliness not just a sad and unfortunate status but an actual pandemic.
And as seen in the recently released Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), such concerns can even affect women as well. The Barbara Minerva/Cheetah character has similar issues: isolation, awkwardness, low self esteem, and melancholy. And when her character finally gains confidence, has sexual relations with an attractive man, and finds how beautiful fashion changes how she feels about herself and can change how people see her, she identifies the true awful effect of what her isolation had done to her in her prior existence.
Rent-A-Pal seems to be much more than the character study of a lonely man who may just need a bit of therapy. It’s about many things. It’s also a story about the affliction of social awkwardness; about how it has ruined many who just desire more. It’s about how technology and the information age has caused as much harm as good to the fabric of social structure. And to a lesser extent, the inevitability of how old age in many cases becomes an affliction upon both child and parent; caregiver and patient.
There is an entire third act of Rent-A-Pal that shows the consequences of what could happen to those without the means to help themselves. And David’s tale (and his story’s ending), if not the norm, is most certainly an impending candid manifestation of an undesirable result.
Rent-A-Pal is a thoroughly engaging movie that in no way can be considered a happy watch. But it is very much an attention grabber. And whether drama, thriller, or horror film, the movie has its roots strongly placed in independent cinema. As a character study, it tugs on the feelings of its viewers. A very high recommend.