★★★★ out of ★★★★★
What happens if your imaginary friend is full of homicidal suggestions? Daniel Isn’t Real is a trippy tale of psychological breakdown and showcases two actors from proud Hollywood family legacies giving great performances. Next playing at FilmQuest!
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
If talking to yourself is an indicator of insanity, then having an imaginary friend… as an adult… is a clear sign of some serious psychoses rumbling around in an addled brain. Miles Robbins (Son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins) plays Luke, who as a child experienced the trauma of seeing the aftermath of a coffee shop massacre which introduced him to his imaginary friend Daniel. Luke was a very creative little boy. He and Daniel would play fight as knights, turning brooms into swords, and imagining they were daring paratroopers. But one day, Daniel convinces Luke to grind up an entire bottle of medication into a shake for his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) which nearly kills her.
Luke banishes Daniel into a big Victorian dollhouse (dollhouses seem to be having a horror moment right now) where he would remain until Luke got much older. In the ensuing years, Luke’s mom starts to display serious signs of schizophrenia, making life a bit of a strain for both of them. After counseling encourages Luke to become more engaging and more creative, he decides to release the best friend he ever had from the purgatory of the dollhouse, and Daniel re-enters his life.
Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger… yes of that lineage) is a dashing force of nature. He is very much the angel and the devil on Luke’s weak shoulders, a grinning imp of a presence, visible only to Luke. With Daniel’s guidance, Luke finds his artistic side again, and the confidence to socialize, and importantly meet girls at his school, and his world opens up. Daniel is also a fountain of profound knowledge and, like a mischievous Cyrano DeBergerac, feeds Luke knowledge to help his score well in class, and with the ladies. Things seem to be falling in to place when Luke impresses the free-spirited artist Cassie (Sasha Lane), who falls for his quirks and even senses the presence of Daniel as some sort of a shadow.
But Daniel. if you recall, is a malevolent being. His suggestions become less playful and more malign. Luke at first, tries to carve his own path, but Daniel won’t let him. The genie is fully out of the bottle, and the battle of wills is on. Daniel has the ability to take over Luke’s body and make him do unspeakable acts of cruelty, and it becomes a struggle over body, mind, and soul.
This is Adam Egypt Mortimer’s second feature film, and this film establishes him as a young director of much promise. His first film, Some Kind of Hate largely passed without notice or acclaim, so this comes as a bit of a bolt out of the blue. The escalation of events that coincides with the dissolution of Luke’s psyche all the way down to the gonzo and hellishly surreal ending were very well handled. Mortimer is part of the new wave of directors who have embraced the full spectrum of the rainbow for the lighting, giving an other-worldly sheen to the product.
Robbins and Schwarzenegger are destined for big Hollywood careers, and this was a fantastic proving ground for them. You got to see each of them stretch their emotional range. Robbins was the embodiment of a curled up and troubled recluse who comes out of his chrysalis only to find that his dreams were set up by a demon. Schwarzenegger, though not as massive as his father, has both his dad’s charm and his menace, and I would suggest is a much better actor that pops. His sly charm is effortless but he can change that to a glowering menace with just a cold stare. Very effective for both of them. If anything they might have been able to pull back a little bit, but because they committed so fully, their performances were really engaging.
Spectrevision, the Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah production company has been acquiring thoughtful and entertaining properties like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Cooties, Mandy, and the upcoming Color out of Space and Daniel Isn’t Real is a testament to their position as an A24-like high concept horror house. It’s fascinating seeing the still youthful Wood helping shape the horror landscape in such a meaningful way, and I hope that Spectrevision is able to find more talent like Mortimer to help propel the indie horror scene forward.
Daniel Isn’t Real was one of the buzziest films at the Overlook Film Festival, and it also showed to great reviews at the Fantasia and Popcorn Frights Film Festivals. There’s still time to check it out in the theaters! It’s going to be at FilmQuest in Provo on Saturday, September 14, along with many other great horror films. If you miss it there, you’ll probably have to wait until December 6, when the movie goes into limited/streaming release.
Daniel Isn’t Real is not have an MPAA rating yet, but I would suspect it to be rated R for language, graphic violence, sexual content, and raw intensity.