Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady
Written by: Jon Stevenson
Directed by: Jon Stevenson
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 108
Date: 09/11/2020
IMDB

Rent-A-Pal (2020)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Botch Tape

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Collectors of VHS tapes have sprung up everywhere in this age of digital streaming, and the new exploitation thriller Rent-A-Pal should appeal to them, not only in its midnight-movie exploitation vibe, but also in its fetishizing of the old tapes themselves.

Rent-A-Pal contains loving close-ups of black tape winding around silvery machine heads, but also includes moments of physical tapes being used in acts of violence and madness.

A feature writing and directing debut by Jon Stevenson, the movie, set in the early 1990s, takes a surprising amount of extra time to find genuine empathy and understanding for its characters.

Main character David (Brian Landis Folkins) is a schlubby nerd with pale, uncool clothes, a smushed-down hairstyle, and hopelessly middle-aged glasses. It would have been easy to ridicule him, but the movie instead finds his kind, lonely center — or at least until the bloody climax.

David takes care of his aged mother (Kathleen Brady), who suffers from dementia, and lives full-time in her basement. He has subscribed to a video dating service, but after six months has yet to receive even a nibble. So he goes in to record a new tape.

His testimonial turns out beautifully, an honest, endearing speech about kindness, but, in a moment of savage cruelty, he's told it's too long and he must do another one.

On the way out, he finds a tape in a bargain bin. On the tape is Andy (Wil Wheaton, forever known as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation), who promises that they are going to be good friends.

Video Andy seems to talk directly to David, and seems to listen. They have drinks, and play "Go Fish" together. When David unexpectedly, happily, connects with the sympathetic, adorable hospice caregiver Lisa (Amy Rutledge), Andy actually seems jealous.

Unfortunately, after establishing clear, interesting relationships between the four main characters, Rent-A-Pal then takes a brutal, gory turn that follows a different emotional throughline, and one that doesn't really seem to make sense.

In a movie this compact and enclosed, the rules of the game ought to have been a little more clearly established. It's good enough for long enough to deserve a look, but as it stands, Rent-A-Pal sadly leaves off with the clacking, rattling sound of an "eject."

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