As a child, Luke had an imaginary friend named Daniel. After a troubling incident, he locked Daniel away and moved on with his life. Now a freshman in college, Luke returns home to visit his mentally unstable mother. In rehashing past trauma, Luke releases his old friend to help him cope with his reality.
From the producers of Mandy comes an all-new film to blow audiences’ minds. Daniel Isn’t Real is based on the novel by Brian DeLeeuw titled This Way I Was Saved. DeLeeuw (Curvature, Some Kind of Hate) co-wrote the film with director Adam Egypt Mortimer (Holidays, Some Kind of Hate). This duo creates cinematic magic in this film and delivers a compelling story unlike anything I have seen before. The film introduces us to Luke when he is a child and dealing with his parents going through what is clearly a tumultuous divorce. It is during this time that Daniel makes his first appearance. Imaginary friends are a fairly common coping mechanism for children going through trauma, so his mother allows this fantasy to continue until that fantasy becomes dangerous. Then Daniel comes back into Luke’s life during another time of trauma. Daniel is a very alluring and charming person who is able to help Luke get through hard times, tap into his artistic abilities, and become more confident with women. But, as with most things, all of this is too good to be true and Luke’s life spirals out of control all thanks to Daniel. DeLeeuw and Mortimer clearly create a fantastic mythos for Daniel and relate it to real-world issues. It’s also a mythos that keeps the audience guessing as to whether Daniel is a figment of Luke’s imagination, a side effect of a mental health issue, or something far more sinister.
There are so many layers to the plot of Daniel Isn’t Real. The top layer primarily deals with mental health. Luke’s mother has schizophrenia that is clearly not being taken care of by a healthcare professional. Naturally, when Luke’s life starts to get out of hand he thinks he is like his mother. Not only is it sad to watch his mother lose her handle on reality, but it’s equally unsettling to see how much it alters Luke’s life both when he was a child and as an adult. With schizophrenia potentially being hereditary, it’s heartbreaking to see Luke question his own sanity and fear that he is becoming like his mother, despite his love for her. It’s really powerful to watch and creates a stunning yet depressing commentary on mental illnesses and how they affect more than just the afflicted.
Another layer to the plot of Daniel Isn’t Real is the allure of power and control. Daniel is able to improve Luke’s life in virtually every aspect at first. His mother finally goes into the treatment she needs, he gets into photography, and he finally is connecting with other people. The effect Daniel has is intoxicating to Luke, but it also means he lets his guard down around his newfound friend. Daniel ends up taking over his entire life. There is even a psychosexual element as Daniel’s power over Luke extends to the bedroom, yet Daniel appears to almost be jealous of these interactions. It’s a bizarre dichotomy that makes you wonder who is truly in control at any given moment. Yet, despite that battle for control, the two are very much dependent on each other as well.
Daniel Isn’t Real contains many truly phenomenal performances. Miles Robbins (Blockers, Halloween) stars as Luke. Up until this film I had only really seen comedic performances from Robbins. His portrayal of Luke absolutely blew me away. Robbins shows such emotional depth in this role and conveys Luke’s unraveling mental state perfectly. It’s the kind of performance that stays with you long after the film ends. Patrick Schwarzenegger (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Grown Ups 2) stars opposite Robbins as Daniel. At first Schwarzenegger’s performance is quite subtle. He’s charming, helpful, sleek, and sexy. Then as the cracks in Daniel’s facade grow and his true nature shows, Schwarzenegger is able to really let his acting ability shine. He makes the character ominous and dangerous and pure evil in the best way possible. Both Robbins and Schwarzenegger also play off of each other very well. Other delightful performances can be found in Sasha Lane (Hellyboy) as Cassie, Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes) as Claire, and Chukwudi Iwuji (John Wick: Chapter 2) as Braun.
There are many gorgeous artistic elements throughout Daniel Isn’t Real. The filmmakers utilize a combination of both practical and CGI effects. While both are impressive, the practical effects are especially striking. They manage to be both beautiful and disturbing in a way that commands the screen and draws the viewers’ eye. The effects become more prominent and elaborate as the plot progresses and beautifully blends different worlds. Throughout much of the film, artwork is prominently featured as well. The most disturbing, beautiful, and iconic images are of Daniel. Along with the visual artistry, Daniel Isn’t Real also has a bewitching musical score by composer Clark (National Treasure: Kiri, Rellik). The score has an eeriness to it that matches the tone and look and the film.
Daniel Isn’t Real is a triumph of filmmaking. It claws its way into the minds and souls of audience members and never lets go. Both DeLeeuw and Mortimer deliver a masterpiece of a film. The performances from Robbins and Schwarzenegger demand attention and their on-screen chemistry is delightful to watch. What might be the biggest feat of Daniel Isn’t Real is how it takes ideas that wouldn’t traditionally work on screen and executes them perfectly. As an indication of how much I enjoyed this film, I went online and bought the novel Daniel Isn’t Real is based on as I wrote this review. This is a must-watch film and one that has solidified its place in my top films of 2019.
OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10
[…] This is a film with a plot that shouldn’t work on film. Yet Adam Egypt Mortimer not only made it work, but he create a beautiful film about trauma, mental illness, and inner demons. On top of having a great story, the film also has gorgeous visuals and superb performances from the two male leads. Daniel Isn’t Real is the kind of film that really takes an emotional toll and sticks with the audience long after it’s over. Full review here. […]