Producers: Annie Elizabeth Baker, Jimmy Weber, Jon Stevenson, Brian Landis Folkins, Brando Fryman and Robert B. Martin, Jr.  Director: Jon Stevenson   Screenplay: Jon Stevenson   Cast: Brian Landis Folkins, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge, Wil Wheaton, Adrian Egolf, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge and Brandon Fryman   Distributor: IFC Midnight

Grade: B-

A lonely man unravels psychologically under the influence of a weird video tape in Jon Stevenson’s oddball horror comedy-drama.  At once grimly funny and deeply unsettling, the period piece (set in the early 1990s) has the makings of a cult favorite though many viewers will have trouble watching to the end, not least because Stevenson, who also served as editor, allows the picture to run on ten or fifteen minutes too long, becoming repetitive and somewhat ponderous in the process.

Brian Landis Folkins plays David, a plump, bespectacled, abnormally shy fellow who’s a constant caretaker to his widowed mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady), who suffers from dementia, believing that her long-dead husband is still alive.  Desperate for companionship, David subscribes to Video Rendezvous, a cassette-tape-based dating service, but though they’re more than happy to take his money, they’re unable to pair him up with anyone, especially since the recording they make of his pitch to prospective partners is so disastrously bad because of the time constraints they impose on him and his resultant nervousness.  (No retakes, of course.)

Leaving the office, he spots a cassette called “Rent-A-Pal” in a bargain bin and purchases it. He pops it into his VCR and is introduced to eager-beaver Andy (Wil Wheaton), a chirpy fellow seated in a leather armchair who offers the viewer friendship, talking about his own life while asking questions and offering sympathy and concern.  The tape’s obviously a cheaply-made affair, with Andy occasionally shown in close-up but mostly stationary as he exudes empathy and gradually moves into increasingly intimate details and observations.

The thought of such an “interactive” videotape actually working is a joke in itself, and for a while Stevenson plays with it, having Andy break in before David can finish an answer or respond inappropriately.  But that’s essentially abandoned as David becomes obsessed with the tape, replaying it over and over and, after initially dismissing it as nonsense, embracing it as a psychological crutch and depending on it for the support he otherwise so completely lacks.  He plays “Go Fish” with Andy, tells him about his most embarrassing experiences while listening to Andy’s, reveals his innermost fears and hopes.  It becomes a technological drug on which David becomes utterly hooked. 

Matters take a darker, more inexplicable turn when Video Rendezvous finally comes through and sets up a date for David with a sweet, understanding young woman named Lisa (Amy Rutledge).  In response to David’s successful night out, Andy acts—or does David imagine that he acts?—like a jilted lover, accusing him of neglect and throwing him over.  David tries to keep both relationships afloat, but finds it difficult.  And when his mother wanders off and then fiddles with the precious tape, he goes berserk—with disastrous consequences.

This last act turns “Rent-A-Pal” from dark to pitch-black, and will turn many viewers off, just as Bob Balaban’s similarly offbeat “Parents” did back in 1989.  There’s a difference, though—Balaban’s movie was notable for its visual stylishness, while Stevenson’s is obviously a bare-bones effort, with a production design (by Brando Fryman) and cinematography (by Scott Park) that emphasize grubbiness and claustrophobia—not, one suspects, as a matter of narrative choice but of economic necessity. (The film was shot in and around Denver, clearly with severe budgetary restrictions.)  In each case, though, the result is the same—the movie makes you uncomfortable, which might be the impact Stevenson was aiming for but is hardly a recipe for mainstream success (as “Parents” certainly proved).

If you can go along with its strange premise and uncompromising execution, however, you’ll find this an intriguing if imperfect portrait of mental deterioration.  Folkins anchors the picture with a portrayal than runs the gamut from hapless ineptitude to furious rage, and captures the neediness of the character perfectly.  But he’s partnered beautifully by Wheaton, who never escapes the confines of a videotaped image on a television screen but manages to convey Andy’s false affability and subtle malignancy nevertheless.  Both Brady and Rutledge contribute strong supporting turns, with the former especially powerful as the demanding mother whose attitude helped make David the unstable character Folkins demonstrates him to be.  Jimmy Weber’s music underscores the overall sense of building menace.        

“Rent-A-Pal” isn’t for everyone, of course, but some will find it an effectively creepy black comedy-drama.  You probably can tell which camp you’ll fall into.