By Shawn Pacheco | December 13, 2019 | 11:55 AM
Walking into a screening for Daniel Isn’t Real, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I had not heard much other than brief synopsis and I had avoided watching the film’s trailer. In retrospect, I think this was a wise move, as letting this movie wash over you without any preconceived notions makes for maximum impact.
The film is a fascinating look at mental illness and, more specifically, schizophrenia. It’s reminiscent of other psychological horror films such as Jacob’s Ladder (which, by the way, stars Daniel Isn’t Real lead Miles Robbins’ father, Tim Robbins) and Donnie Darko in that we follow the main character as they descend into madness, unable to pull themselves out of their personal tailspin. As such, we slowly begin to lose the ability to decipher reality from delusion, just as the characters in those films have.
The story follows Luke (Miles Robbins, Halloween 2018), a college student still dealing with the effects of childhood trauma. At 8-years old, Luke stumbled onto the aftermath of a mass shooting in his New York neighborhood. As a way of dealing with that trauma, Luke invents an imaginary friend named Daniel. Although his “presence” initially has a positive effect, Daniel begins to turn more manipulative and mischievous, culminating in Daniel tricking Luke into nearly killing his mentally unstable mom, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson, Fried Green Tomatoes) with prescription medication. As a result, Luke locks Daniel away in his dollhouse, where he stays for the next 12 years.
While at college, Luke’s mother has a breakdown, which prompts his old friend Daniel to return. This adult version, played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, seems quite charming on the surface. But as Luke’s college relationships begin to develop, Daniel’s true intentions start to become clear. Luke’s romantic relationship with an artist named Cassie (Sasha Lane, American Honey) and his friendship with his roommate soon become poisoned by Daniel’s presence. Before long, Daniel threatens Luke’s identity and very existence. The real question then centers on who/what Daniel is and if this is all a case of Luke developing the same mental illness that has long plagued his mother.
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate) from a screenplay based on Brian DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved, Daniel Isn’t Real is a visual delight, with some excellent visual effects and cinematography throughout. Although comparisons to those films mentioned earlier are inevitable, Daniel Isn’t Real is strong enough and unique enough to stand on its own. The performances, particularly Schwarzenegger in a breakout performance, are great and carry what could have easily been a hokey story. The perils of mental illness are real and, if left unchecked, can be deadly. Movies like this and Joker and others are important in educating the masses, at least on some level, about the perils of mental illness and the stigma surrounding it. Hopefully, stories like these and from those who have suffered through mental illness can help move us toward better treatment and care.
Daniel Isn’t Real is currently in select theaters and is available on digital platforms everywhere.