There comes an age where children will decide they can continue their lives without imaginary friends. For Luke (Miles Robbins), this is when his imaginary best friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) convinces him to blend all of his mother’s medication into a smoothie to give her ‘superpowers,’ resulting in a near-fatal accident. Mentally locking Daniel away in a childhood doll house – think Danny Torrance’s locked boxes in recent flick, Doctor Sleep – Luke attempts to live out his teenage years without his best friend. That is until his schizophrenic mother’s mental breakdown causes Luke to re-open the box, longing for the guidance of Daniel once more.
Adam Egypt Mortimer’s second feature, Daniel Isn’t Real plays with ideas of memory, mental health, and trauma to subjugate Luke to the terrors of his own mind. With Luke now at college age, his anxiety and hopelessness is through the roof, until Daniel reappears.
When Daniel initially comes back he is nothing but helpful— in fact, he could almost be seen as an idealised version of the downtrodden Luke. Daniel is cool, relaxed and confident, telling Luke exactly what to say and do to get the best out of a situation; mainly when it comes to girls. Cassie (Sasha Lane) is an art student that Luke immediately takes a shine to and in the early days, Daniel is the ultimate wing-man.
Things quickly go awry as Daniel seeks to control Luke’s actions— and succeeds. His stranglehold over Luke twists tighter and more violently with each scene. Miles Robbins is particularly good here, genuinely terrified and paranoid; its nice to see the stoner kid from Blockers flex some emotional range. Daniel possesses the toxic hyper-masculine bravado of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden as he manipulates Luke to have sex with girls and looms over him at every moment. Yet the most sinister thing is that we know he isn’t real from the get-go. Schwarzenegger carries the role with a disgustingly cocky attitude that its impossible not to hate (in a good way). Daniel is a projection of all of Luke’s insecurities and also a physical manifestation of the mental illness that is ravaging his mind.
This mental health aspect, however, is overshadowed when the final acts delve into the world of supernatural and practical effects. Not that these effects are bad by any means, they are actually pretty original. But the set-up of Daniel Isn’t Real introduces Luke’s mother as under psychiatric help and suffering from delusions. Luke’s grapple with the limits and perception of his own reality (and how real it might actually be) could have leaned more into psychological horror with a story of inherited mental illness, rather than creatures and otherworldly notions. After all, what is scarier than the deepest corners of your own mind?
It often feels like Mortimer shoves aside potentially one of the most refreshing aspects of the film to satisfy midnight crowds that want to see a tangible boogeyman rather than explore the depths of the story he already puts in place. If anything, Luke’s mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) is the most interesting character. Claire’s fight against her own non-visible demons is devastating and terrifying.
Daniel Isn’t Real’s destination often feels undecided, but backed by terrific performances from the entire cast and some nightmarish ideas, Mortimer delivers an initially understated psychological horror that morphs into something much more monstrous.
Daniel Isn’t Real is out on Digital now
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here