Daniel Isn’t Real (2019)
Written by Adam Egypt Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
Acts of brutal mass violence can have a powerful effect on people, especially children. Last week, over a dozen children and two teachers were brutally murdered in their school. This revived the seemingly never solved debates about gun control, health care, school safety, etc. The polling organization Gallup has found that most Americans stop engaging in online conversations about mass shootings approximately four days after they occur. Clearly, the problem will never be solved if we move into these same discourse cycles, so we must keep finding ways to incorporate awareness and potential solutions in everything we do. Though I viewed this picture weeks ago, I can’t help but find that it is relevant to what is happening now.
Luke is only a boy when he walks past the bloody crime scene of a mass shooting at a neighborhood diner. He sees the killer, riddled with bullets from the police, and the shooter’s victims strewn around. Luke is jostled out of his horror by another young boy who happens to be there, Daniel. Daniel and Luke become great friends, but it’s clear that Daniel is imaginary, a manifestation of Luke’s coping mechanisms. Daniel grows to hate Luke’s mom, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) and convinces Luke to poison her by using her psychiatric medication. Claire survives and forces Luke to get rid of Daniel by mentally “locking” him away in an old dollhouse. Time passes, and Luke grows up.
The now twentysomething Luke (Miles Robbins) suffers from severe anxiety issues, fearful of an uncertain future. His mother’s mental health has also declined to a worrying degree. One night, while Luke is staying over to keep watch, so she doesn’t self-harm, he unlocks the dollhouse, and an adult Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), emerges to rekindle the friendship. Luke tries to keep his relationships intact, especially with an artist named Cassie (Sasha Lane), but Daniel wants sex. So he takes over Luke’s body to hook up with another woman and sexually assaults her. Luke’s mental instability increases, and he realizes the only way to regain control of his life is to try and banish Daniel again. But his childhood imaginary friend learned a lot while locked away for years, and he won’t leave without a fight.
There’s something familiar about the style of this film, a reminder of those low-budget horror films of the late 1980s or 1990s. The special effects are good but not so overly done with digital paintbrushes as to appear uncanny. Elements of body and cosmic horror are all wrapped up in one while keeping its story grounded in the real-life ramifications and issues that come with having mental health problems. While within the film’s fantasy, Daniel is presented as a literal demonic entity, we can also see him as a manifestation of pain resulting from the trauma of witnessing such bloody violence as a child. The film’s best parts are centered around Luke trying to determine what Daniel is, and the film smartly never nails that down.
I could understand if someone finds the approach to mental illness in the movie to be not the most delicate take. Some moments feel a bit off; the jump to diagnosing Luke as schizophrenic doesn’t play out in a very realistic way. Claire does have this particular mental illness, so he is possibly predisposed to also having it to some degree. I don’t think the intent is to stigmatize the people with these mental health issues; instead, it’s trying to express the feeling of being a person who feels so much anxiety over their own mind. Daniel is ultimately not who Luke is but a force that Luke must contend with. That said, I did appreciate the film presenting a solid defense of consent and sex-positivity. The violence of Daniel is contrasted with a beautiful scene where Luke explicitly asks Cassies about specific sex acts before he does them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a healthy portrayal presented in a film before.
There are digital and practical effects that become more prevalent in the third act, but I don’t think they ever overshadow human performances at the core of the picture. Robbins and Schwarzenegger deliver such fantastic performances, balancing out the extreme aspects of the other. Robbins never plays Luke as weak, just confused and trying to live his life on his terms. Schwarzenegger captures Daniel’s cold Patrick Bateman-esque quality, a dangerous charm that lures people in. I was genuinely surprised with the direction the story ultimately went, and I think it ends on a note that feels honest to the characters presented. Daniel Isn’t There has some glaring flaws, but the good parts are exceptional.
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