Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Writer: Brian DeLeeuw, Adam Egypt Mortimer
Producer: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood
Stars: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter McRobbie
A troubled young man’s imaginary friend from childhood returns as an adult eager to indulge in darkly disturbing desires.
SXSW Film Festival Review:
It’s ordinary for a little boy like Luke to have an imaginary friend. But Daniel is far from an ordinary imaginary friend.
Stepping out of his troubled household for a bit of a breather, Luke’s eyes inadvertently lap up the awful aftermath of a coffee shop massacre perpetrated by a deranged gunman. That’s when Daniel suddenly appears, apparently conjured by an uneasy mind to help Luke process the crimson carnage.
The two boys quickly become constant companions. For a while, Luke’s mother Claire smilingly placates the pretend sword-fighting and other bits of innocuous make-believe. Then Daniel gets dark. He wants Luke to drug his mother’s drink. Having no reason to believe his best buddy would want him to do something terrible, Luke agrees to play Daniel’s dangerous game.
Claire survives the unwitting attempt on her life, but cannot humor Luke’s fantasy any further. She has her son imagine locking away Daniel in his grandmother’s antique dollhouse, never to be seen or heard from again.
New troubles arise in adulthood. Now in college, Luke suffers from seizures while Claire flirts with her own psychosis. Without knowing the whole history, Luke’s therapist suggests he cope by reopening his imagination, which returns Daniel to Luke’s side.
Things start as innocently as they did the first time. Daniel plays Cyrano to Luke’s Christian, talking the budding law student into picking up a fling at a party as well as a sassy artist met in the street. The further Daniel builds his boy’s confidence, the more daring he gets with his demands. With each mental chain Luke breaks, Daniel grows increasingly sinister. Luke may have freed Daniel from the dollhouse, but Daniel intends to free himself from Luke’s mind.
While discussing the film’s creation following its SXSW premiere, director Adam Egypt Mortimer stressed the importance of perceiving Daniel as a flesh and blood being. “Daniel Isn’t Real” uses the scaffolding of schizophrenia to erect a dark drama following familiar patterns for a possession thriller. But the physical aspect to Luke’s alter ego allows the film to maintain a middle ground between psychological and body horror as it evolves into a distinctly disturbing story.
By giving dimension to Daniel as Luke’s inner demon, Mortimer and co-writer Brian DeLeeuw, upon whose novel “In This Way I Was Saved” the film is based, take a tale centered inside a terrifying mindscape and creatively conceptualize it cinematically. Mortimer drafted a 35-page style guide to convey that vision to the crew, devoting several pages exclusively to using color as well as simulating the hallucinogenic experience of a manic episode. Speaking as a longtime sufferer of clinical depression, I cannot think of anything comparative that has so extraordinarily externalized an introspective struggle through such swirling sights and sharp sounds. The illustrations are so acutely dizzying that “Daniel Isn’t Real” becomes one of the most intriguing visualizations of dueling identities ever imagined. I can’t completely articulate the effect the film had on me mentally other than to say I exited the theater feeling as though I was still swaying from the influence of a hypnotically inebriating spell.
Conflict isn’t only metaphoric in “Daniel Isn’t Real.” Detrimentally, a handful of proportionality issues unbalance atmosphere on occasion.
Most notable is the credibility disparity between the two co-lead performances. Miles Robbins storms the screen as Luke, easily evoking empathy even when his character engages in stereotypical college male behavior that is considerably less endearing in a post-MeToo climate. Robbins retains a firm grip on Luke’s vulnerability to keep the character’s humanity steady despite an emotional roller coaster ride through supernatural and psychological terrors.
One may contend that this intentionally plays into the character’s fabric, but Daniel on the other hand comes across as an overly false personality. Patrick Schwarzenegger drives Daniel with excessive smugness. His nonchalance goes further than the character requires, making for a phony feeling persona that doesn’t match Robbins’ dedication to Luke at the other end. It’s essential for their seesaw to remain level in terms of energetic intensity, yet Daniel truly “isn’t real” in a manner that stems more from performance than from characterization.
Another bump in the movie’s road involves attention paid to Luke’s relationship with Cassie, his artistic equal, versus Luke’s affair with Sophie, a coed whose interest extends only as far as a cocaine-fueled threesome. A necessary evil exists here due to how Daniel convinces Luke he won’t be cheating if he allows Daniel to control Luke’s body while with Sophie. You can’t hit that checkpoint without a setup like this. Still, casual sex with Sophie while courting Cassie lessens Luke’s shine as a sympathetic hero.
Beyond that, too much Sophie means not enough Cassie, and Cassie’s minimized screen time truncates her depth as a meaningful motivator for Luke’s later actions. A rewrite condensing Sophie’s storyline into Cassie’s would have resolved this issue. It also would have put certain stakes into Cassie and Luke’s bond that their romance needs to really read as a critical component.
On a purely narrative plane, “Daniel Isn’t Real” encounters additional potholes such as taking an extended amount of time to reveal the exact nature of the plot and building up to a finale that doesn’t have an explosive payoff. Nevertheless, the movie overwhelmingly succeeds on the strength of its intangible themes and how vividly they are realized.
“Daniel Isn’t Real” tackles topics of duality as well as struggles with self-confidence. It examines challenging questions about how we cope with dark impulses and create false faces to conceal less appealing aspects of our identities. Always at the center of this subtext, “Daniel Isn’t Real” accomplishes its objectives while remaining a mesmeric movie where fairy tale fantasy morphs into chilling cosmic horror.
Review Score: 80