Brian Landis Folkins’ genuinely sweet but lonely David comes across “Rent-A-Pal” while trying to find a girlfriend through a video-based dating agency that’s like Tinder but for people with VCRs. At first it’s a novelty to David—as desperate as he may be from the beginning for someone to talk to other than his mother (Kathleen Brady), whom he lives with—but when the search for a date runs dry, the “Rent-A-Pal” tape sounds like amusing company. The video is just what it offers: Wheaton’s Andy asks questions, and advocates having “a good time” with whoever is watching the tape. Andy asks questions and waits for answers, and follows up with flattering statements (“Nice digs!” he says, while pretending to look around the viewer’s apartment). What’s key is that he cares: he even has a phone next to him that he never uses to call, but instead hangs it up when it rings. For human beings that can be all we need—to just feel like we’re being heard—and the tape preys upon that. It’s all prerecorded.
Once David gets the sense that he can talk to this person, that the video’s reactions are in sync with what he’s saying, Rent-A-Pal becomes a true connection for him. Sitting alone with a cup of whiskey in hand, he answers Andy’s questions about his parents, and about his personal life. Andy then bonds with the viewer, and ideas of entitlement, misogyny, and general anger start to flood in with his own monologues, all in the context that this is stuff guys talk about, that they don’t need anybody else. Especially after Andy shares a story about being humiliated by a woman, David is all ears. Sitting in his mother’s basement, with his TV providing the only light, David gets lost.
Watching Folkins watch this tape—to see the formation of this relationship—makes for one of the most original and riveting sequences of 2020. The movie takes its time in getting started, setting up David’s small world, but it truly takes off when a bond is built between a man you care about and a comforting figure on-screen. David learns how to interact with it, and Stevenson (working as editor) cuts it like an active conversation, so much that you forget you’re still just watching a guy talk to his TV. David gets the connection that he wants, and you believe that he achieves this in part by learning the video beat by beat. Not only is he memorizing it, he’s being programmed by it, with Andy’s sentiments shown to be stranger and more controlling, but effective. This scene, as part of Stevenson’s excellent script, is an incredible, incisive distillation of the kinship people found in toxic boys clubs.