A film which navigates sensitive issues with care, intellect, imagination, and brutality at times, this second film from Adam Egypt Mortimer is a stunning ride through university life (and Hell).
Daniel Isn’t Real is one of those very rare films that is virtually impossible to spoil: I could probably retell the whole thing right here and now, and if you were to watch it an hour later, it would still surprise you. Or maybe stun you, or maybe baffle you. Personally, I was gobsmacked. The production, acting, writing, the ideas; pretty much everything.
The film starts by introducing Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner, It Comes at Night), a kid who stumbles across a bloody crime scene one day when escaping from his parents fighting. Traumatic stuff, which his new imaginary friend Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid) distracts him from. Daniel keeps him company with support and play for ages until something goes wrong, and Luke’s mother insists he does away with Daniel. He manages just fine without his friend for several years, until another crisis turns into a trauma. Now Luke (Miles Robbins, Halloween 2018) is at university, ticking along with the help of a therapist, but when he needs someone closer to talk to, Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) is on call. Daniel boosts his confidence with girls and with his studies, but he also takes exception to some of Luke’s friends and tells him things he doesn’t want to hear.
What follows is a story about Luke enjoying Daniel’s friendship at first, but then gradually losing his marbles as he tries to put an end to Daniel’s influence again, even facing up to the possibility of schizophrenia. But is Daniel there because of Luke’s mental health, or is Luke getting more unwell because of Daniel? Is Daniel “real” or not? Is Daniel Isn’t Real a psychological horror story or a supernatural one or a blend of both? I’m going to watch it again for sure, but I have a feeling I still won’t have the answer, and that’s fine: ambiguity keeps us thinking.
There is certainly a lot to think about in Daniel Isn’t Real. Different ways of perceiving layers of personalities, different responses to trauma, the will to be well, etc. And they somehow managed to do all this without stigmatizing or talking down about mental illness, but exploring the issues instead, via different characters. For example, Luke’s therapist (played very thoughtfully by Chuk Iwuji, When They See Us) sees Daniel as a personality who aggressively takes over Luke’s body, whereas Luke’s artist girlfriend Cassie (Sasha Lane, American Honey; great to see her again) sees Daniel as a shadow in the background.
The cast is frankly spot on. Many have raved about Schwarzenegger, for his range, his nuanced expressions (comparing him very favorably to his father), but I was blown away by Miles Robbins. He is definitely ready and right for this lead role, transforming naturally from a young man finding his feet at university to someone who loses his footing in life completely.
The only character which didn’t impress me was Luke’s mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson, Benny & Joon, etc). I’m not sure if that’s because the neurotic middle-aged mother is such a cliche in literature and film that it’s a difficult stereotype for real woman to escape from; or because I’d not long seen Joker, and her character pointed out to me some parallels between the two films. They both show men who want to be noticed navigating some — let’s say — personality issues, via their mothers’ issues; albeit with a radically different response to and outcome from the process. Perhaps Daniel Isn’t Real is like what Joker could have been as a horror film.
And oh yes, it’s a horror. When Chris Cooke and Steven Shiel introduced Daniel Isn’t Real on the opening night of Mayhem 2019, one of them said it’s like Drop Dead Fred meets Hellraiser. Everyone laughed at that, but I understood the description by the time the film finished. Some of it is surreal and hellish, there’s violence (difficult to watch at times) and body horror at unexpected moments. This might sound like a bit of a mess, but the various moods and visual styles in the film do reflect the story well, as well as the changes that a troubled mind goes through.
I cannot close without mentioning the care taken with the production. The sets, both real (such as Claire’s chaotic home) and imagined are beautifully realized; we can very easily sympathize with how it must have felt to spend time in both kinds of Hell. Cassie’s paintings and Luke’s photography must have involved a great deal of effort and collaboration with the writers. And then there are the special effects; those that involved the blend of what’s real and what’s imagined, and the physical transformations Luke went through (or seemed to go through): seamless throughout.
Daniel Isn’t Real was directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, his second major feature. He told Twitter recently that it’s getting a limited theatrical release in December and then streaming via Shudder a few months later. I can’t wait to see it again.