Review: Dave Franco’s ‘The Rental’ is an indecisive tale of a bummer vacation

Dan Stevens and Alison Brie in the movie "The Rental."
(Allyson Riggs / IFC Films)

“The Rental” is the directing debut from actor Dave Franco, who also co-wrote the screenplay with filmmaker Joe Swanberg. The film — an ambitious hybrid of relationship drama and horror thriller under an umbrella of contemporary technology fears — doesn’t quite fulfill its premise on any front in telling the story of a getaway vacation that gets very out of control.

The film stars Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White and Alison Brie as Charlie, Mina, Josh and Michelle, respectively, who set out for a weekend of drugs, board games, long hikes and hot tubbing at a spacious, remote rental house tucked along dramatic seaside cliffs. Toby Huss, one of the most dependable character actors working in contemporary film and TV, who elevates everything he is in, is just the right curveball as a caretaker of the property who may be prejudiced and malevolent or maybe just drunk and thoughtless.

The story’s basic setup revolves around four interconnected people: Charlie and Mina are close work partners, while Mina is newly dating Charlie’s brother Josh; Michelle is married to Charlie and outwardly comfortable with his concentrated dynamic with Mina. Less a love triangle, they form something of an evolving relationship rhombus. Allegiances shift, secrets spill and insecurities wedge themselves into the growing spaces between them.

There is enough tension and anxiety — and a very capable troupe of actors — for a more character-based drama of the kind Swanberg himself once explored in films such as “Silver Bullets” and “The Zone.” But as the story goes along it veers further into the territory of a stalker-thriller-horror movie and completely derails. The tonal shift doesn’t play as a surprise but rather as the outcome of filmmakers who didn’t quite know what to do next. The bizarre over-reliance on fog — so much fog — to provide atmosphere begins to feel like some sort of inside joke gone overboard.

Sheila Vand in Dave Franco's "The Rental."
Sheila Vand as Mina in Dave Franco’s “The Rental,” an IFC Films release.
(Allyson Riggs / IFC Films)

The four central performers all add depth to characters that might otherwise be little more than loose sketches. Stevens is self-involved while presenting as a sensitive guy, White a barely-holding-it-together rage-aholic and Brie a people pleaser more determined than she seems. Vand, best known for her role in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” makes the strongest impression as someone weary of all the world has thrown at her, a naturalistic combination of strong and vulnerable.

The story is predicated in part on the level of trust involved in short-term vacation rentals — specific brand names are studiously avoided — and the way you don’t really know the people in charge. Yet as the film becomes more of a conventional genre piece, it also leaves unexplored the darker realities of these contemporary fears and paranoia in favor of reaching for easier, splashier thrills.

Earlier this year Brie (married to Franco in real life) starred in and co-wrote “Horse Girl,” which saw her using the creative capital of the success of the series “G.L.O.W.” to make something strange, personal and intense. If only Franco had done something similar with “The Rental,” instead of creating a project that seems so tentative and unsure of itself. While the performances ensure that the movie is always watchable, the hesitant storytelling makes it far from compelling, a bad trip about a bummer vacation.

'The Rental'

Rated: R, for violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexuality

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry; Paramount Drive-In, Paramount; Mission Tiki Drive-In, Montclair; also on VOD