By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, and Mary Stuart Masterson
Written by Brian DeLeeuw and Adam Egypt Mortimer
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
To an adult, a child’s imaginary friend is a potentially rich source for horror. These made up playmates are not only a necessary invention out of trauma, but they also tightrope walk the fine line between childlike innocence and an uncontrolled outside influence on the kid’s malleable mind. Danny Torrance’s friend Tony might be the most high profile version of these imaginary examples, but there is certainly more potential for those scares in horror’s future films. This year’s Overlook Film Fest had not just one but two films focused on imaginary friends… or are they? DANIEL ISN’T REAL takes a look at mental illness and its relationship to crafting reality, with a surprising dose of empathy, a healthy dose of world creation, and a little slice of sexiness.
Writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer wastes no time and starts off DANIEL ISN’T REAL with a bang: a shotgun bang. Just as a young woman is starting to her day at an adorable New York cafe, a lone gunman enters the shop and begins firing. The jarring violence is just the kind of uncontextualized mayhem that makes horror fans drop their popcorn, lift their eyebrow, and ask the screen, “How you doin’?”
Nearby, in an apartment, a married couple us having a doozy of a fight. Mom (Mary Stuart Masterson) is screaming and throwing kitchen items all around while young son Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner, later played by 2018 HALLOWEEN’s Miles Robbins) cowers. Wanting to escape the fight, Luke leaves the apartment on his own and takes to the street. Far too young to be out on his own, Luke also happens upon the cafe crime scene’s flowing blood and pile of bodies. In a panic, his mother is able to find him gawking at the site of such a horrible tragedy, but there is also a slightly older boy there with him suddenly. Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid, later played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) is now merely a comforting companion for Luke.
As you can tell from the film’s title, it is never meant for us to think that Daniel is ever an actual child. Luke has been going through a lot, and as an only child it is not out of the realm of possibilities for him to create a playmate for himself out of his imagination. While it is literally fun and games for a spell between Luke and Daniel, soon Daniel’s darker side emerges and Luke’s mom insists on sending Daniel away. Years go by and Luke is left to grow into a shy young man without Daniel’s mischievous influence. In college, as his month’s mental health hits a dramatic low, Luke releases Daniel and the two get back together, and back to their dark pranks and evil ways.
The jarring violence is just the kind of uncontextualized mayhem that makes horror fans drop their popcorn, lift their eyebrow, and ask the screen, “How you doin’?”
DANIEL ISN’T REAL sets out to intentionally deal with mental health issues, schizophrenia in particular. With its late in life onset, and its close mimicry of having an imaginary friend and a bit of paranoia it is understandable that Luke would want some validation of his mental wits before fully admitting what he is actually dealing with. Adding in a new love interest, Cassie (AMERICAN HONEY and 2019’s HELLBOY, Sasha Lane), further complicates Luke’s attempts to sort out his life and gather his thoughts. This is not to say that the film deals with the subject in a nuanced or especially gentle way, but it at least allows the topic to be considered and discussed as a familial concern and as a possible defining theme in Luke’s life.
As the lines between Daniel and Luke begin to blur, their differences become striking. While Daniel would have Luke believe that they are more alike than they are different, Luke maintains his autonomy through his artistic expression and his tender relationship with Cassie. In one of the more illuminating contrasts between the two characters, we get to see each of their sexual exploits, from foreplay (or lack thereof) through the post-coiltal cuddle. Seeing a sexy session on screen that not only highlights female pleasure, but also shows exactly how much of a turn on consent can be, was such a refreshing and titillating sight. It is possible for sex, and even sex in the movies, to be hot and respectful and DANIEL ISN’T REAL has set that standard.
But DANIEL ISN’T REAL is not all therapy and boning, it also has plenty of horror and terror within it. The more we get to know Daniel, the more we see of his true nature. In an inspired pivot we get to see quite a bit into his history and origins, which leads to an INSIDIOUS-esque world creation of this hallowed past. Luke has no concept of what he has gotten himself into, and has even less of an idea of how to save himself.
Also at the center of DANIEL ISN’T REAL is some truly disturbing art. Much like the giant paintings in THE DEVIL’S CANDY, this art is beautiful but unsettling at its core. Visually, there is no doubt that Daniel is far worse than Luke sees him.
One part the further and two parts DROP DEAD FRED, DANIEL ISN’T REAL does not shy away from questioning reality or sanity.