Patrick Schwarzenegger and Miles Robbins play the pinnacle roles in Daniel Isn’t Real. An imaginary friend and a boy who grows up with a tonne of baggage. A film not seen by enough people due to the chatter surrounding its subtext. But this movie is amazing. Despite how you feel about the reflective and intense narratives swirling with undertones of mental illness, it’s easily able to be seen from a possession angle if you like.
The story begins with a young Luke, in the shadows as his parents argue and his mother smashes things. Luke takes off and ends up outside a cafe where a shooting has just taken place. He stares at the dead body laying on the steps as a boy suggests they go play together. It’s here Luke finds solace in an imaginary friend, Daniel, who he invites home for dinner. And it’s Daniel who just happens to grow up to look like the same person he saw as a child, dead, at the front of a cafe.
Lukes mother has schizophrenia and the story subverts much of the trauma that has caused him to grow up in a sheltered existence. Instead, the film focuses on flashbacks, art school and displays of behavior Luke learns to treat as his ‘normal.’
His mother Claire finally retires to a mental institution shortly after Daniel is freed from his dollhouse prison. Once free of her influence, Luke gets more time to bond and rely on Daniel. Daniel serves as wingman and confidant, and together they are a formidable pair. Good looking and intelligent. Luke ignores the violent suggestions and controlling jealousy of Daniel, learning from his mistake as a child. Eventually, though, Daniel becomes the more dominant personality and Lukes life slowly begins to deteriorate. What I loved about Daniel Isn’t Real was its ability to traverse the journey of reliance on whether or not to fight your inner demons.
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Imaginary Mirco Budget
The micro-budget cinematography is noticeable at times but in a good way. There is a scene in the first quarter that I loved because I enjoy the artsy aesthetic of camera-flare in the light. I found the slight unsteadiness of shots more personable. More inside the moment. The colors and chaos had me glued to the screen. The score was pure perfection and only added to the creepy undertone of everything else.
The banter between characters and the burgeoning relationship between Daniel and Luke was enjoyable. For most of the film, Daniel is a separate entity to Luke and towards the end, it revolves around his imaginary friend immersing himself inside Lukes body. I would be remiss to not mention the special effects. For a low budget film, they were outstanding.
I found the imbibed penmanship to films in the same realm as Jacobs Ladder, The Exorcist and Requiem for a Dream comforting instead of feeling like an overdose of the generic. It’s the way this story rides along that made it stand out. Performances all round are strong and well thought out. I read that Schwarzenegger wanted to come across similar to Nicholas Cage. I’m not sure about that. But I did catch myself thinking about Joaquin Phoenix while watching him contort his face into a myriad of emotions.
I also couldn’t help but think of the Australian horror Hereditary while deep diving into this dark and seedy film. Brian DeLeeuw wrote the original novel and together with its director Adam Egypt Mortimer, they managed to create something really special. Both previously worked together on Some Kind of Hate, an underrated indie gem with a bad rap. Brian DeLeeuw wrote 2019’s Paradise Hills, a film I found more strange than worth seeing.
Overall I was only disappointed in the heavy-handed approach to overlay what was a beautifully constructed madness with a supernatural angle. But I can’t decide one way or another if that’s really a bad thing in itself. Daniel describes himself as a traveler and even that can be seen from different sides of the fence as the same illness.
I give Daniel Isn’t Real
4 Imaginary friends out of 5