The Rental (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A competent test run by Dave Franco

Dave Franco’s debut feature film “The Rental” is a modest test run for his nascent filmmaking career. Although it will not surprise you much especially if you are familiar with its genre territory, it is mostly competent on the whole in technical aspects, and you may be more lenient than me to its several shortcomings including its predictable narrative trajectory.

At the beginning, everything looks fine and well for Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his close co-worker Mina (Sheila Vand). They have searched on the Internet for finding any suitable place where they can spend the upcoming weekend along with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and then they happen to come across a seemingly nice beach house which can be rented for two days. Although Mina somehow fails to rent it at first, Charlie subsequently succeeds without much sweat, and Mina, who is incidentally an American woman of Arab descent, wonders whether the owner of the beach house has a racial prejudice against her.

Nevertheless, she still expects to have a fun and pleasant time with Charlie, Michelle, and Josh, who has been in a serious relationship with Mina for a while. It is revealed that Josh’s life has been quite messy and problematic due to his serious anger management problem, but he really wants to make a fresh start along with Mina, and Mina willingly stands by her man as shown from their brief private scene.

When these four people go to the beach house, we can clearly see a trouble right from the start. For example, Mina and Josh decide to bring their little pet dog even though that is not allowed by the owner of the beach house at all, though they manage to hide the dog from a gruff maintenance man who happens to drop by the beach house not long after the arrival of our four main characters. As talking with the maintenance man, who claims to be the brother of the owner of the beach house, Mina eventually lets out her growing doubt on the possible racial prejudice of the owner of the beach house, and that certainly leads to a very awkward moment for everyone around her.

Anyway, the mood among our four main characters subsequently becomes a bit more spirited than before. As watching his brother and his girlfriend being a little closer to each other, Josh wonders whether they are really no more than close work colleagues, but Michelle has accepted her husband’s close relationship with Mina because she has no doubt on her marital relationship with Charlie.

During the following evening, it turns out that Michelle brought a packet of recreational drug. Although she is not going to use it for now because she wants to wake up early and go hiking in the morning, everyone else agrees to use it together, and we soon come to sense something being developed between Mina and Charlie. After Josh and Michelle get asleep, Mina and Charlie come to talk more with each other, and then….

Meanwhile, the screenplay by Franco and his co-producer/co-writer Joe Swanberg, which is developed from the story written by them and Mike Demski, also establishes a sinister undertone around its four main characters. For example, it often looks like somebody is watching them from the distance, and there is also a rather suspicious room hidden in the basement area of the house. In addition, Mina and Josh’s dog is disappeared later in the story (Is this a spoiler?), and that certainly adds more nervousness to our four characters’ increasingly tricky circumstance.

The four main cast members in the film did a solid job of bringing some human quality to their respective roles. Dan Stevens, who looks quite more serious and intense compared to his flamboyant supporting turn in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (2020), and Sheila Vand, who has been more prominent since her breakthrough performance in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014), are convincing in their characters’ accumulating panic and dread, and Alison Brie, who has been mainly known for Netflix comedy series “GLOW”, demonstrates more of the serious side of her talent while Jeremy Allen White, who is mainly known for his supporting turn in TV comedy series “Shameless”, is also effective as another crucial part of the story.

It was disappointing for me to see that what has been established well during the first two acts of the movie gets crumbled as the movie inevitably enters a certain familiar genre area during its last 20 minutes. At least, there are still several things to be admired on the screen thanks to the good efforts from Franco and his crew members including cinematographer Christian Sprenger, and Sprenger did a commendable job of imbuing several key scenes in the film with a growing sense of uneasiness and menace.

Overall, “The Rental” works as well as intended, and Franco, who was recently wonderful in his brief supporting performance in “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018), shows here another side of his talent to watch, but the final result does not distinguish itself that much from many other similar genre flicks out there. It surely attempts to add some style and substance to its rather barebone story and characters, but that is not enough for me, and I sincerely wish that Franco will soon move onto better things in his supposedly promising filmmaking career.

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