Adam Egypt Mortimer‘s (Some Kind of Hate, the “New Year’s Eve” segment in Holidays) Daniel Isn’t Real might just be the best horror movie playing at the SXSW Film Festival this year. Based on Brian DeLeeuw‘s novel In This Way I Was Saved and working from a script that he co-wrote with DeLeeuw, Mortimer has crafted a unique and terrifying vision of discovering one’s true identity amidst a world that is seemingly against you. This film, about an evil imaginary friend, manages to be a near-perfect combination of body horror, cosmic horror and psychological horror that gets under your skin while also finding its way into your heart.
After witnessing the gruesome aftermath of a public shooting, traumatized 8-year old Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) invents an imaginary friend named Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid) who leads them both into a world of fantasy and imagination. After Daniel tricks Luke into nearly killing his mentally unstable mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson, Fried Green Tomatoes, Benny & Joon), Luke is forced to lock him away in a dollhouse. Twelve years later, Luke (now played by Blockers’ and Halloween 2018‘s Miles Robbins) brings Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) back after his mother has a breakdown — and he now appears as a charming, manipulative young man with a terrifying secret agenda.
After spending last year playing comedic stoner characters (this isn’t an insult, he’s legitimately great in Blockers), Robbins gets to play a whole new side of himself as Luke, showcasing a vulnerability we haven’t yet seen from the young actor. It’s a marvelous performance that wins you over immediately. Schwarzenegger is equally strong, albeit it in an entirely different way. His Daniel is a truly menacing figure that manages to be simultaneously charming and threatening (leaning further into the latter as the film goes on). There will no doubt be viewers who walk into Daniel Isn’t Real ready to criticize Schwarzenegger, but they will walk out disappointed. He’s very, very good in it. Masterson is good in her handful of scenes but is underused, as is Sasha Lane (American Honey) as Luke’s love interest Cassie. The under-utilization of the female characters makes a certain amount of sense, as this is Luke and Daniel’s story, but it would have been nice to get a few more scenes out of them, especially Claire.
Much of the fun in this bleak little film comes from trying to decipher just what Daniel is. Is he a schizophrenic hallucination? Is he a ghost? Or is he something more sinister? In films like Daniel Isn’t Real (not that there is a film like it, but just go with it), the film often becomes less interesting as the mystery’s solution becomes clear. Thankfully that isn’t the case here. Whether or not the answer is narratively satisfying is ultimately up to the viewer (it worked for me), but at least it keeps you invested along the way. Though the film doesn’t seem entirely sure of its mythology (the extent of Daniel’s abilities is never really clear), it helps add to the surrealist nature of the plot. I’m not sure the final minutes wholly work either, but I might just need more time to sit with it.
Criticisms have been made over the film’s depiction of mental illness. This is partly due to the fact that Daniel, Claire and his psychiatrist (Chukwudi Iwuji, John Wick: Chapter 2) immediately jump to a diagnosis of schizophrenia (Claire also suffers from the disease), and partly because you can read the film as (literally) demonizing the illness. It’s also possible to read the film as making a commentary on the stigma that surrounds schizophrenia and other mental illnesses but again, it’s up to the viewer. No matter your opinion on the matter, you’ll walk out of the theater wanting to discuss it. Daniel Isn’t Real does attempt to tackle a variety of social issues, including sex positivity and consent, handling most of them fairly well. There is a wonderful love scene between Luke and Cassie that was, quite honestly, touching.
Though it doesn’t truly wow until things get weird in the third act and the sets become more bizarre, Kaet McAnneny‘s production design is stunning, as are Martin Asles make-up and creature effects (save for some iffy CGI in one sequence). The body horror elements call to mind A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and they are appropriately grotesque. This should come as no surprise, as the production company behind Daniel Isn’t Real is Spectrevision, which also brought us films like Mandy and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (and co-founded by Elijah Wood, no less).
Daniel Isn’t Real is a trip, but it’s a trip you’ll want to take. An exceptional second feature from Mortimer, the film boasts two phenomenal lead performances from Robbins and Schwarzenegger, as well as some impressive effects and set design. The film is currently seeking a distributor, but I can’t imagine it will be long before someone scoops it up. This is why you go to the movies.
Daniel Isn’t Real had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 9, 2019, and is currently seeking distribution.