Review: DANIEL ISN’T REAL (2019) – SFFF 2019

An imaginary friend who has entirely too much effect on a person’s real-life, be it a child’s as in Z or an adult’s as in Fight Club, it’s a common story. Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind Of Hate) has chosen it as the plot for his second feature, Daniel Isn’t Real. It’s based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw who co-wrote the script with him. It’s part psychological thriller, part horror film, and partly a drama about radicalization.

Daniel Isn’t Real begins with a bang, literally. A man walks into a restaurant and starts shooting. Young Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner, It Comes At Night) wanders out of the house to escape his parent’s fighting. He witnesses the aftermath, including the bullet-riddled body of a waitress. He also meets Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid).

The two become friends, even though Luke is the only one who can see him. However, Daniel convinces Luke to pull a prank with near-fatal results. As a result, his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson, Mad At The Moon, Bad Girls) has him lock Daniel away in his grandmother’s old dollhouse.

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Years later, Luke (Miles Robbins, Halloween, The X-Files) is a smart but socially awkward college student. He spends his free time taking care of his mother, whose schizophrenia is approaching dangerous levels. When Dr. Braun (Chukwudi Iwuji, John Wick: Chapter 2) suggests he confront repressed parts of his thoughts, he unlocks the dollhouse, Figuratively and literally.

Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) is still there. He’s confident and self-assured, and surprisingly happy to see the person who locked him up. Under his friend’s tutelage, Luke is soon cutting loose, partying and picking up women. But as Luke grows closer to Cassie (Sasha Lane) and Daniel’s advice becomes more and more antisocial and misogynistic, a second confrontation begins to brew.

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Mortimer and DeLeeuw also have some social points to make, and thankfully they do it with subtly. Luke becomes more attached to Cassie, and Daniel begins to feel jealous and cut out. As a result, he tries to mould him into a pick-up artist with the attitude that women are something to use and discard. Certainly not to respect and love.

If this sounds like what you would hear on some incel or “men’s empowerment” site, it’s not a coincidence. I’ve read Mortimer has claimed the intent was to mirror someone like Luke getting sucked into one of these sites and having his views radicalized. And on that level, Daniel Isn’t Real is scarier than all of its more imaginative plot devices.

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After Some Kind Of Hate and a segment in the Holiday anthology, Daniel Isn’t Real marks Adam Egypt Mortimer as a director to watch. It also marks Patrick Schwarzenegger as someone to watch as well. I know I’m not the only one who saw his name and thought in terms of stunt casting. And while I’m sure his name didn’t hurt, he actually gives an excellent performance, better than anything his father has ever done.

Daniel Isn’t Real finished its festival run at this year’s Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival. It goes into release in theatres, on digital and on-demand December 6th from Samuel Goldwyn Films. You can check its Facebook page for details. Shudder was also involved with the film, so I’m guessing it will eventually end up streaming there as well.

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