Rent-A-Pal

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Rent-A-Pal Movie Poster Image
Violent psycho-thriller is touching but flawed.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 108 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Until the movie takes a big turn in the final act, it demonstrates many acts of kindness, empathy, and understanding. Unfortunately, it all comes undone, but some of the ideas may stick anyway.

Positive Role Models & Representations

David is shown as mostly kind and giving to his mother, although he also displays selfishness from time to time, and his character arc isn't entirely admirable. But Lisa -- despite her ending -- is shown to be a very giving character, working as a hospice caregiver, responding without question to David's distress call when his mother has gone missing. Her thoughtful attempts to calm the mother down are admirable. Characters listen to each other, connect in touching ways (before everything takes a big turn).

Violence

A man smacks a woman in the face with a video tape; she falls to floor, and he smears blood on her face with his fingers. A man pushes a woman down stairs; smashing noise as she hits bottom. A man chokes a woman with loose videotape. A woman stabs a man with scissors. Dribbling blood, blood from mouth, bloody wounds. Character slips and falls on broken crockery. Shouting, yelling. Rage. Description of suicide. Upsetting dialogue centered around caring for older adults.

Sex

Porn movie shown on home projector; a few seconds of blurry footage seen (woman grinding on top of a man). Graphic sex-related dialogue. Suggestions of man masturbating. Passionate kissing; a woman slides her hand up a man's thigh, and he makes orgasm noises. Extremely quick flash of naked breasts. Man half-seen in shower (nothing sensitive). Glimpse of naked woman being bathed in bathroom (nonsexual).

Language

Uses of "f--king," "s--t," "bitch," "goddamn," "damn," "d--k," "hell."

Consumerism

Old 1990s-era MasterCard shown. Mounds candy bar shown.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Character drinks heavily alone at night in several scenes, sometimes passing out. "Andy" drinks on video as well. A couple share drinks on a date.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Rent-A-Pal is a thriller about a lonely man who discovers a "video friend" (Star Trek's Wil Wheaton) and finds his life upended. Despite its violent, somewhat disappointing ending, the movie has examples of genuine empathy, understanding, and listening, and it's quite touching and compelling for most of its running time. But it also has scenes of brutality: A man beats a woman with a videotape, smearing blood on her face and throwing her down a flight of stairs. He attempts to strangle another woman. He's stabbed with scissors, and dribbling blood is shown, in addition to other violent moments. There are also brief glimpses of a porn movie and a flash of naked breasts, graphic sex-related dialogue, suggestions of someone masturbating, and a couple kissing passionately and touching intimately. Language includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," and other words. Characters drink frequently, sometimes alone, to the point of passing out.

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What's the story?

In RENT-A-PAL, lonely David (Brian Landis Folkins) spends his days looking after his mother (Kathleen Brady), who has dementia, and living in her basement. It's the early 1990s, and David is subscribed to a video dating service but has received no matches in six months. He goes in to record a new video, and, while there, discovers a tape in the bargain bin called "Rent-A-Pal." He takes it home and meets his new video pal, Andy (Wil Wheaton). David starts spending many hours with Andy. But at the same time, he unexpectedly matches with the perfect girl, Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a hospice caregiver who understands exactly what David is going through. But Andy appears to be jealous. And after several unfortunate incidents, David is driven to a breaking point.

Is it any good?

Focused on raising familiar characters to compellingly intimate, emotional levels, this thriller is a bit of a letdown following the "breaking point" moment, but overall the good outweighs the bad. The feature writing and directing debut of Jon Stevenson, Rent-A-Pal begins soaring after a couple of early scenes. In one, David and his mother watch His Girl Friday on TV together, talking and remembering sweetly. In another, David re-records his dating video and comes up with an endearingly honest testimonial, only to be told -- heartbreakingly -- that it's too long. It would be easy to make fun of David, with his pale, uncool clothes, slicked-back hair, and glasses, but the movie understands that he's human; he loves his mother and longs for an end to his loneliness.

Even Andy is beautifully done. Wheaton's performance should have a note of menace, and it does, but the actor uses it to make Andy seem cool and fascinating rather than repellent. The variety of dialogue on the "Rent-A-Pal" tape, shown in a different order during various sequences, provides for an impressive array of emotional sequences, ranging from empathy and joy to ridicule and jealousy. And Rutledge is likewise warmly touching in her role. But when Rent-A-Pal turns a corner in the third act, it derails, not following the same emotional throughline. For a movie this compact and interior, too many rules are left unestablished. It's slightly unsatisfying, but not enough to undo the good work done in the early parts.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Rent-A-Pal's violence. How did it affect you? Is it meant to be shocking/brutal, or somewhat exciting? What's the difference? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • How much of the movie's violence is directed toward women? How did that change the way you saw the main character?

  • How is sex depicted? What values does it impart? Is there respect? Trust? Bragging?

  • How is alcohol/drinking depicted? Does it seem cool or glamorized? Are there consequences? Why does that matter?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love thrills

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