Rent-A-Pal is a thriller about loneliness, a subject you don't often see addressed in this genre. The movie, written and directed by Jon Stevenson, plunges viewers into the world of a sad, isolated man who dreams of meaningful human connection, only to find it repeatedly out of his grasp. By withholding the traditional thriller elements until the last act, Stevenson gives us time to soak up this guy's misery so that his eventual unraveling makes a big impact. Thanks to a superb lead performance, the journey we go on is emotionally gripping.

Set in 1990, the story revolves around David (Brian Landis Folkins), a single guy who lives with and cares for his dementia-afflicted mother. Because of his role as caretaker, he can't work and he's got no friends. David did, however, sign up for a video dating service that, sadly, hasn't produced any matches. One day, as he tries to pick up a new “lonely hearts” tape, he purchases an intriguing-looking video cassette called “Rent-A-Pal.” When he gets home and pops it in his VCR, he's greeted by Andy (Wil Wheaton), a host who guides David through a pre-programmed conversation.

At first, the whole thing seems goofy, but Andy becomes the only real companion in David's life. Then he gets a lucky break, being matched with Lisa (Amy Rutledge), a woman who seems perfect for him. Even better, she likes him as much as he likes her. David finally seems to be approaching happiness, but what about Andy? You'll have to see the movie to find out.

Rent-A-Pal works because it takes loneliness seriously. Stevenson closely observes David's world: living in his mom's dingy basement, taking her verbal abuse, not having anyone to talk to aside from some random actor on a videotape. We feel the desperation that comes from thinking life might not get any better for him. Forming connections is difficult, at best, when you have none already existing. David has no one to rely on, no one to turn to, nothing to build upon. For that reason, it's easy to buy into the idea that this strange videotape – pathetic as it is – offers a glimmer of hope. Andy may not be a real friend, but at least he's there.

Folkins does an outstanding job depicting the toll this scenario takes on the character, conveying the insatiable hunger for interaction. Many of his scenes require him to play opposite a TV set. Nevertheless, that bond comes to seem authentic. Folkins convinces us that David is getting something from rewatching the tape over and over, even if it's only in his mind. Rent-A-Pal consequently takes on an effectively uncomfortable vibe. We care deeply about the character even in his worst moments.

The contribution of Wil Wheaton cannot be understated. His role consists entirely of sitting in a chair and talking to someone who isn't really there. Even so, the faux-chummy way he delivers his lines sells the whole concept of the tape. Wheaton is the secret weapon of Rent-A-Pal because he plays Andy (or, should I say, the actor portraying Andy) with a hint of condescension, as if this guy is fully aware that he's making a tape for “losers.” Although Andy is technically David's friend, he's also a bit of an antagonist. That dynamic is fascinating.

You may be able to see where Rent-A-Pal is going before it gets there, not that it matters. The film is a sharp, unsettling portrait of the psychological damage extended periods of loneliness and isolation can inflict on a person.

out of four

Rent-A-Pal is unrated, but contains adult language and some strong violence. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.